Soap companies and governments urged to join forces to save a million lives a year

Soap manufacturers and governments in developing countries will today be urged to join forces to promote handwashing with soap, and help to save a million lives a year.

While most households in the world have soap and water, very few use them together to wash their hands, especially not after cleaning up a dirty baby or going to the toilet. Yet recent research at the LSHTM has revealed that the simple act of washing your hands could almost halve the number of deaths from diarrhoeal diseases – which kill 200 children an hour, more than either AIDS or malaria – and save a million lives a year.

The London School of Hygiene, the World Bank and the Water and Sanitation Program, are holding an event as part of the Water Day at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, and will be calling for the establishment of global public-private partnerships between soap companies and governments in developing countries. Such partnerships, aimed at doubling the rate of hand washing, have been successfully implemented in Central America, are now being launched in Ghana and Kerala, India, and are set to spread to many other countries including China, Peru and Senegal.

Dr Val Curtis, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, (one of the leaders of the initiative), comments: ‘Handwashing with soap is a bit like a do-it-yourself vaccine. It should be adopted across the world, just as vaccines are, if we are to achieve our goal of halving deaths from diarrhoea.

‘Soap manufacturers are the world’s biggest advertiser, and have an enormous amount of marketing expertise at their disposal. They estimate that if the programme is implemented successfully, they could increase their sales of soap in developing countries by 50%.

‘This programme will be informed by the extensive consumer studies we have carried out, and will reach out to target audiences through mass media, direct consumer contact and government channels of communication to target those most at risk – mothers, children, and the poor – across the whole population’, Dr Curtis concludes.

Jennifer Sara, a sector specialist at the World Bank said:
‘The public sector, has everything to gain from reducing the public health burden presented by diarrhoeal disease and has access to a huge network of potential outlets such as health centres and clinics, community nurses, midwives and health visitors. Public-private partnerships really are a win-win opportunity for everyone involved.’

The initiative is being led by the World Bank and the Water Sanitation Programme (WSP), with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the Academy for Educational Development (AED) and partner organisations USAID, UNICEF and WHO, as well as soap companies such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive and local producers and government agencies.

As part of a day’s activities aimed at encouraging hand washing, and explaining its benefits, world leaders, Ministers and personalities attending the Summit from across the globe, including Claire Short and Gracia Machel will be washing their hands with soap.

The London School of Hygiene/World Bank event will be held at the Waterdome in Northgate from 2:45 pm, with an introduction from Jamal Saghir, Director, Energy and Water, World Bank. There will be a question and answer session, followed by a round table discussion with audience questions at 4:20 pm.

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