Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Soapy Affair

Today is Global Hand Washing Day.

The UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) has declared 15 Oct as the first-ever global hand washing day to create awareness about and accelerate hand washing behavior among parents and school children. Millions of children from 20 countries across 5 continents would join hands to encourage this simple act of handwashing with soap.

Why need to even set aside a day to remind the world to wash hands with soap? To be honest, when I first came across the initiative, I found it unnecessary. But I was soon persuaded as I am further informed.

Diarrhea kills more than 2 million children every year. Every 20 seconds, a mother mourns a dead child lost to diarrhea, which is a completely preventable and utterly inexcusable cause of death. A recent review suggests that handwashing with soap could reduce diarrhea incidence by 47% and save at least one million lives.

Diarrhea is both preventable and treatable, yet families in developing countries continue to pay the price of this disease in lost lives, missed school days, reduced resistance to infections, impaired growth, malnutrition, and poverty. It is saddening to know that all the suffering is avoidable with just one simple solution: handwashing with soap.

Handwashing with soap is the most effective and inexpensive way to prevent diarrhea and acute respiratory infections, which take the lives of millions of children in developing countries every year. Yet, despite its lifesaving potential, handwashing with soap is seldom practiced and difficult to promote.

I understand that UNICEF will promote the idea in developing countries such as India, Peru, Ethiopia and Indonesia. I was almost being presumptuous to conclude that the Global Hand Washing Day has no place in Singapore but the recent outbreak of HFMD (Hand-foot-and-mouth disease) held me back.

The usual symptoms of HFMD is throat and tonsils ulcers and blisters on hands and feet. It spreads from person to person by direct contact with the nasal discharge, saliva, faeces and fluid from the rash of an infected person. Children are generally more susceptible even though adults get it too.

HFMD is present all year round in Singapore and there is no specific treatment for the infection. However, good hygiene practices, including frequent handwashing can be part of the prevention measures.

In the past few months, Singapore saw thousands of HFMD cases. The outbreak was at one point closed to reaching an epidemic level. Some affected childcare centers were forced to temporary close down while lives of those hit had been turned topsy-turvy. HFMD is usually not fatal but this year we saw one casualty of a young child.

The nightmare has prompted
wash products maker, Dettol, to put up
the Hand Hygiene program to build awareness about personal hygiene among young children. The program taught the young ones the proper way to wash hands in a fun and interactive manner.

So, the message is simple: wash your hands with soap! If you have little ones at home, read this interesting "Gingerbread Man" story to them and teach them the importance of handwashing in a fun way.

Happy hand scrubbing!

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