JUBA— It's a small, simple gesture that is second nature in the west and can prevent the spread of illness and even save lives, and this week, South Sudan celebrated handwashing with a campaign that officials hope will curb the spread of many common bacterial diseases that plague children in the country.
“In South Sudan 34 percent of children are affected by diarrheal diseases while about 19 percent are affected by acute respiratory infections," Water Resources Minister Jemma Nuno Kumba said.
"Diarrheal diseases and acute respiratory infections account for more than 40 percent of deaths among children under the age of five years. Yet, correct and consistent practice of handwashing with soap alone could significantly reduce the burden of these diseases," she said.
Kumba said her ministry has started a national billboard and radio campaign to encourage people to wash their hands after they use the toilet, and before eating or preparing food. Women are also being told to wash their hands before breastfeeding their children.
Deputy Country Representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Pelucy Ntambirweki said the campaign builds on research conducted in South Sudan which shows how beneficial the simple act of washing your hands can be to health.
“Research has shown that hand washing with soap can reduce the rates of diarrhea by more than 40 percent and can reduce the incidents of acute respiratory infections, which include pneumonia, by around 23 percent,” she said.
But in South Sudan, people will have to learn a new habit if handwashing is to become second nature.
Most people only wash their hands after a meal, said Pelucy, and few of the popular roadside restaurants in Juba offer soap for patrons to wash their hands, regardless of whether they do it before or after a meal.
"People have been used to using things in a certain way, so introducing something they may think is new may take a long time. We have to persistently keep spreading the message with everybody we work with, so that gradually the people we are talking to can change their behavior and do the right thing,” said Pelucy.