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Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

The importance of hygiene

© UNICEF/HQ07-1136/Shehzad Noorani
Girls wash their hands outside a UNICEF-provided latrine in central Afghanistan.

Access to improved water and sanitation facilities does not, on its own, necessarily lead to improved health. There is now very clear evidence showing the importance of hygienic behaviour, in particular hand-washing with soap at critical times: after defecating and before eating or preparing food. Hand-washing with soap can significantly reduce the incidence of diarrhoea, which is the second leading cause of death amongst children under five years old. In fact, recent studies suggest that regular hand-washing with soap at critical times can reduce the number of diarrhoea bouts by almost 50 per cent.

Good hand-washing practices have also been shown to reduce the incidence of other diseases, notably pneumonia, trachoma, scabies, skin and eye infections and diarrhoea-related diseases like cholera and dysentery. The promotion of hand-washing with soap is also a key strategy for controlling the spread of Avian Influenza (bird flu).

The key to increasing the practice of hand-washing with soap is to promote behavioural change through motivation, information and education. There are a variety of ways to do this including high-profile national media campaigns, peer-to-peer education techniques, hygiene lessons for children in schools and the encouragement of children to demonstrate good hygiene to their families and communities. See the hygiene promotion page [link: Hygiene promotion page] for more information.

It is also true that without water there is no hygiene. Research shows that the less readily available water is, the less likely that good hygiene will be practised in households.



Hygiene Resources

Hygiene Central (from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)

Fact sheet on hand-washing with soap (from WELL)

UNICEF Hygiene promotion page

The Evidence

Key academic papers on the importance of hand-washing with soap:

Curtis, V. and Cairncross, S.  (2003). Effect of washing hands with soap on diarrhoea risk in the community: a systematic review.

Luby, P. et al (2005). Effect of handwashing on child health: a randomised controlled trial.

Rabie, T. and Curtis, V. (2006). Handwashing and risk of respiratory infections: a quantitative systematic review.

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