Simple act of handwashing with soap could save thousands of lives

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14 October 2016 – With cholera spreading fast in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, and with a new outbreak in war-ravaged Yemen, UNICEF urges children, families and communities to make washing hands with soap a habit to help prevent the spread of diseases.

On the eve of Global Handwashing Day, UNICEF says that, in 2015, more than 300,000 children under the age of five died globally from diarrhoeal infections linked to poor access to safe drinking water and sanitation – a rate of more than 800 per day. Yet many of these deaths could have been prevented through the simple act of handwashing with soap. 

“Every year, 1.4 million children are dying from largely preventable diseases like pneumonia and diarrhoea,” said UNICEF’s global head of water, sanitation and hygiene Sanjay Wijesekera. “These are staggering numbers, but they could be greatly reduced by working with children and families to adopt a very straightforward solution – handwashing. We know, for example, that handwashing with soap before meals and after using the toilet could reduce the incidence of diarrhoeal infections by 40 per cent.”  

Proper handwashing practice also contributes to the healthy development of children by keeping them in school. Handwashing actually improves school attendance by reducing the spread of preventable diseases, which means children are not staying home because of illness. 

“Handwashing just makes sense as a frontline preventive measure to keep children safe from disease – it’s simple, cost effective and a proven lifesaver,” said Wijesekera.   

In Haiti, a country with poor water and sanitation infrastructure and a persistent cholera outbreak, suspected cholera cases and acute diarrhoea have increased sharply since the October 4 hurricane.

“This is everyone’s worst nightmare,” said Marc Vincent, UNICEF Representative in Haiti. “Less than two weeks after the hurricane, cholera may be spreading in areas where it previously barely existed and diarrhoea is preying on already vulnerable children. Immediate action is essential – children’s health is at risk.”

Facts on Handwashing:


  • 1 gram of faeces contains 100 million bacteria.
  • Approximately 1 in 5 people globally wash their hands after using the toilet. 
  • Each year, 1.7 million children do not live to celebrate their fifth birthday because of diarrhoea and pneumonia. 
  • When children wash their hands with soap after going to the toilet or before eating, they reduce their risk of getting diarrhoea by more than 40 per cent.  
  • Acute respiratory infections like pneumonia are the leading cause of death in children under the age of five.
  • Evidence suggests that handwashing with soap after using the toilet and before eating could reduce the pneumonia infection rate among children by around a quarter.



Notes for editors:

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About Unicef

Unicef is the world’s leading organisation for children, promoting the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.  

Unicef UK raises funds to protect children in danger, transform their lives and build a safer world for tomorrow’s children.  As a registered charity we raise funds through donations from individuals, organisations and companies and we lobby and campaign to keep children safe. Unicef UK also runs programmes in schools, hospitals and with local authorities in the UK. For more information please visit