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Effort Launched to Increase Use of Soap in Africa - 2002-08-24

World health experts say diarrhea kills hundreds of children in the world every day. World Bank officials say it results in the deaths of more than 800,000 African children each year. Many of the deaths are in West Africa, where intestinal illnesses claim more young lives than malaria or AIDS. Experts meeting at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa plan to present a program they hope will help save one million lives a year: Washing one's hands with soap.

The program, to be launched in Ghana next January, brings together the efforts of large western-based soap companies and local government officials in the West African country.

Through the partnership, which was brokered by the World Bank, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UNICEF, and others, organizers hope to slash diarrhea disease by more than 40 percent over the next three years in Ghana. The program will be carried out mainly through soap company advertisements and education campaigns.

The program will also be launched at the same time in India's Kerala state. It may be expanded to include other parts of the world, including Senegal, Peru, China, and Nepal.

Spearheading the project is Valerie Curtis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who is scheduled to address the Earth Summit in South Africa. Dr. Curtis tells VOA the hand washing program is a simple and cheap means to save children's lives. "Hand washing is probably at least as important as vaccination," she said. "Vaccination programs are reaching 80 to 90 percent of kids across the world, and we want a program as big as that. We think that the people who can help us the most with this are the soap companies, because they're the ones who are very good at getting people to buy soap. What's new in our program is to try and encourage the soap companies to work with governments to encourage everybody to wash their hands with soap. Obviously, it's in everybody's interest. If we can make it work, soap companies are going to sell more soap. Governments can get closer to their real targets, which are to halve deaths from diarrheal disease in 10 years' time."

A similar program in recent years, involving the U.S.-based Colgate-Palmolive company and Europe's Unilever, in Latin America yielded what officials say were positive results.

There is evidence that washing hands can cut infections in general. A 1996 study by the U.S. Naval Health Research Center found that recruits who were ordered to wash their hands five times a day experienced a 45 percent drop in respiratory diseases.

Program advocates are confident the idea may catch on in nations of largely Muslim West Africa, where the principle of washing is already a part of the culture.

As a rule, Muslims wash five times a day before prayers.

And, the program's organizers say, soap consumption is high in West Africa. Market experts say per-capita soap use in the region rivals that of industrialized nations. At Abidjan's bustling Treichville market, soap vendor Peter Joe lays out several varieties of soap at his stall. " We use soap for bathing," he said. "We depend so much on soap. We use it everyday in our lives. We use it to clean. We use it to bathe. We use it to wash our wares. We depend so much on soap to make us to look clean."

World Bank officials say surveys have shown only about 20 percent of people polled in Ghana wash their hands with soap after using the toilet or changing their babies' diapers.

Ghanaian officials hope the program will help people begin to value the use of soap for its hygienic, and not just its aesthetic value. The lead consultant for Ghana's Community Water and Sanitation Agency, Nana Garbrah-Aidoo, says results of a study this year indicate Ghanaians are likely to be receptive to the program. "What we found from the study is that hand-washing was a habit in Ghana, but soap use was not," she said. "Soap use for hand-washing was not. We know that Ghanaians use a lot of soap. What we are trying to do is to build on those uses, which are already [common] of soap. Everybody has soap. In 95 percent of the homes we visited, there was soap."

Advocates of the hand washing initiative program hope to drive home a message to policymakers present at the conference in South Africa that the solution to a major health problem does not have to be expensive and complicated. It may be as simple, they say, as a bar of soap and some water.