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Hands washed: Lives saved

GENEVA (15 OCTOBER 2009) -- "Preventable diseases are killing thousands of people everyday. One simple action, washing hands with soap, could drastically reduce these deaths," say Thursday United Nations human rights experts on water and sanitation, health, and education on the occasion of Global Handwashing Day.

"While access to water and sanitation are critical to the protection of human health, we must remember that these are only effective when combined with good hygiene," emphasized Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Independent Expert on human rights, water and sanitation.

"Handwashing with soap at critical moments, especially after defecating, before handling food, and after coughing and sneezing, is crucial for the prevention of disease," noted the expert, emphasizing that "promotion of this lifesaving activity is part of a State’s human rights obligations."

"Children face the greatest risks from bad hygiene, which can lead to potentially fatal diseases," said Mr. Anand Grover, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health. Good hand washing practices are said to be the single most effective way to avoid contracting diseases, such as acute respiratory illnesses and diarrhoea-related diseases like cholera and dysentery.

These diseases cause 3.5 million deaths among children under five each year and they are preventable. Furthermore, promotion of hand washing with soap will be a crucial way to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus. "Large sums of money are being spent as we speak on awareness-raising to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus -- with similar prioritization, handwashing could reduce the spread of not only H1N1 virus, but many other equally dangerous communicable diseases. In fact, hand washing with soap could halve the number of children dying each year from diarrhoea," added Mr. Grover.

"The school environment is a crucial place for hygiene promotion, since children will often take these lessons home, and it will influence other family members," according to Mr. Vernor Muñoz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education. "We have observed various projects which are based on this premise and are very successful. However, it is crucial that the school environment also provides adequate sanitation facilities"

Promoting handwashing with soap must be a priority at the national level, both for political support and allocation of funds to carry out awareness raising activities. States are obliged to ensure that public places, including public hospitals, schools and prisons, have appropriate facilities for good hygiene. Engagement at the community level is critical to change behaviour. Practicing good hygiene also requires access to sufficient water, and adequate sanitation facilities.

"Hygiene is a central part of the human rights obligations related to water, sanitation and health, and we call upon all States to comply with these obligations. States should prioritize investment aimed at ensuring access to water and soap, in particular in schools," noted the three specialists.

"These investments in simple, cost-effective hygiene methods play an important part in realizing the human rights to health, education, water and sanitation, as well as related Millennium Development Goals. They should be a central part of overseas development aid efforts," concluded the UN experts.