Children in West and Central Africa

UNICEF in the region

Polio immunization

Child and Maternal Health


HIV/AIDS in the region


Water and sanitation

Child protection



© UNICEF/WCARO/2008/Nesbitt

Clean hands saves lives

Handwashing with soap is among the most effective and inexpensive ways to prevent diarrheal diseases and pneumonia, which together are responsible for the majority of child deaths.

In West ad Central Africa alone, making this simple practice an entrenched habit could save about half a million children each year, making a significant contribution to the Millennium Development Goal of reducing deaths among children under the age of five by two-thirds by 2015 (MDG 4).

Yet, despite its lifesaving potential, handwashing with soap is seldom practiced. Around the world, the observed rates of handwashing with soap at critical moments range from zero percent to 34 percent.

Washing hands with water alone is not enough

Although people wash their hands with water, very few wash their hands with soap at critical moments (for example, after using the toilet, while cleaning a child, and before handling food).

But washing hands with water alone is significantly less effective than washing hands with soap in terms of removing germs.

Lack of soap is not a significant barrier to handwashing at home. The vast majority of even poor households have soap in their homes. The problem is that soap is rarely used for handwashing. Laundry, bathing and washing dishes are seen as the priorities for soap use.

Handwashing with soap reduces disease

Washing hands with soap after using the toilet or cleaning a child and before handling food can reduce rates of diarrheal disease, including some of its more severe manifestations, such as cholera and dysentery, by 48-59 per cent and rates of respiratory infection by about one-quarter.

Handwashing with soap is the single-most cost-effective health intervention

Handwashing with soap is a life-saving intervention within the technological and financial reach of all countries and communities. Research shows that a $3.35 investment in handwashing brings the same health benefits as an $11.00 investment in latrine construction, a $200.00 investment in household water supply and an investment of thousands of dollars in immunization.

Turning handwashing with soap into an ingrained habit

Research shows that handwashing behavior can be changed on a large scale through the use of social marketing approaches that encourage people to adopt new handwashing behaviors. The primary target groups of hygiene behavior change programs are mothers and other caregivers of children under the age of five. Another target group for handwashing programs is school-age children.

School programs can help establish lifelong healthy habits. Making toilets and handwashing stations available in schools is essential to ensure children's access to school, especially for girls, and critical to students’ health and to reducing absenteeism. However, schools in the region often have neither soap nor appropriate handwashing facilities. For instance, in the DRC, less than 25% of schools have adequate sanitation. This is why, building child-friendly schools includes building water and sanitation facilities.

Case study: Public-private partnership to promote handwashing in Ghana



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