Campaign aims to promote hand-washing and save young lives in Malawi

© UNICEF Malawi/2008
‘SOPO’ is the cheerful animated character that stars in a new campaign to promote hand-washing in Malawi.

By Victor Chinyama and Kwakwarhi

For World Water Week 2008, observed from 17 to 23 August, UNICEF is focusing on the impact of water and sanitation interventions on children. Here is one in a series of related stories.

LILONGWE, Malawi, 15 August 2008 – A new campaign to promote hand-washing with soap is under way in Malawi. Using a cheerful animated character, called ‘SOPO’, the campaign has caught the imagination of children across the country.

Reaching children is critical, as they are the segment of the population most affected by diarrhoea and other pathogenic diseases caused by poor hygienic practices.

SOPO uses the slogan ‘Did You Wash Your Hands?’ to promote hand-washing with soap at four critical times: after defecation, after cleaning a child, before feeding a child and before preparing food. The proportion of women currently following these recommendations in Malawi is negligible.

Major cause of child deaths

Paradoxically, Malawians have better access to safe water and soap than most others in Africa. Three-quarters of the population has access to piped water, a public tap, a borehole or a protected well or spring. A third of all households have soap or washing powder or liquid.

Yet diarrhoea continues to be a major cause of sickness and death among young children.

On average, a Malawian child will experience six bouts of diarrhoea a year, and 20 per cent of deaths in infants and children under the age of five are due to diarrhoea. The main causes are the use of contaminated water, as well as unhygienic practices in food preparation and excreta disposal.

Hand-washing saves lives

The SOPO campaign is being led by the Ministries of Health, Irrigation and Water Development, and Information and Civic Education, with support from UNICEF. Since its launch in July, the initiative has carried hygiene messages on radio, in newspapers and on billboards. SOPO is slowly becoming a household name in Malawi.

© UNICEF Malawi/2008
SOPO appears on billboards throughout the country, advocating hand-washing with soap at four critical times: after defecation, after cleaning a child, before feeding a child and before preparing food.

Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Health Chris Kang’ombe says it is time for hand-washing with soap to be strongly promoted in order to save lives.

“Adoption of improved hand-washing will reduce occurrences of cholera, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition, which are among the maladies that claim the lives of children in Malawi,” he notes.

Landmark in hygiene promotion

Mr. Kang’ombe’s Irrigation and Water Development counterpart, Andrina Mchiela, points to the need to promote hand-washing among children. She says the campaign recognizes children as champions for promoting improved hygiene as SOPO ambassadors. The children talk about SOPO to their peers at school and in their communities.

UNICEF Representative in Malawi Aida Girma expresses delight that the campaign has been launched, citing it as a landmark in the history of hygiene promotion in Malawi.

“The SOPO campaign is yet another significant milestone in our quest to improve the lives and well-being of children in Malawi,” says Ms. Girma.

The campaign is in line with the UN General Assembly’s declaration of 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation. The declaration aims to put the global community on track to achieve the MDG target on sanitation through advocacy and awareness-building.

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