Got Soap? Today Is 'Global Handwashing Day'

By Susan Jones | October 15, 2012 | 6:48 AM EDT

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( - After all of mankind's medical breakthroughs and scientific advances, the best way to prevent disease may boil down to soap and water.

Monday, October 15, is "Global Handwashing Day," a time to promote handwashing with soap, especially in Third World countries.

The Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap (PPPHW) -- a coalition of groups, including UNICEF, USAID, the World Bank, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and others -- established the day in 2008, mainly to educate children around the world about the importance of hand-washing in preventing disease.

"Handwashing with soap is the 'vaccine' that prevents infections," the partnership says on its website.  The partnership says ingraining the habit of handwashing could save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention.

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It notes that human feces is the main source of diarrheal pathogens, including shigellosis, typhoid, cholera, all other common endemic gastro-enteric infections and some respiratory infections such as influenza and pneumonia. (Not to gross you out, but a single gram of human feces can contain 10 million viruses and one million bacteria, the parternship says.)

Cleaning hands with soap after using the toilet or cleaning a child, for example, prevents the transmission of the bacteria, viruses and protozoa that cause disease. The PPPHW lists hygiene, sanitation, and water as "pillars of development."

According to PPPHW, children living in households exposed to handwashing promotion had half the diarrheal rates of children living in control neighborhoods.

And it says governments have an important role to play:

"A topic that once wasn’t taken seriously, handwashing behavior change is now a strategic government priority in many places," the Partnership says.

It urges political leaders to publically promote the importance of washing hands with soap; the incorporation of handwashing into school curricula and teacher-training programs; the construction of handwashing stations next to new latrines; the adoption of Globl Handwashing Day as a "national celebration"; and it says specific budget line items should be dedicated to the promotion of handwashing.

Handwashing with soap can mean more school days for children, the partnership says, as fewer of them get sick.