The United Nations General Assembly declared 2008 the "International Year of Sanitation," highlighting the crucial need for countries worldwide to have safe drinking water and sanitary places to wash up and use the bathroom.
The initiative came during a year when Zimbabwe endured the largest outbreak in its modern history of cholera, a serious diarrhea-causing disease that's often spread through contaminated food or water. The illness killed hundreds and sickened tens of thousands. Most types of diarrheal infections aren't serious and go away after a few days, but others can be deadly when diarrhea leads to dehydration. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) 5,000-plus tots under age 5 die each day because of diarrheal diseases that many contract because of contaminated drinking water or a lack of fundamental sanitation facilities, like bathrooms with flushable toilets.
In the battle against diarrheal illnesses that are killing 1.5 million kids each year, more than 70 countries in five continents participated in the first ever Global Handwashing Day during the end of 2008. Efforts like these have helped to put the number of people worldwide without improved drinking water below the 1 billion mark for the very first time (with more than half of the people in the world getting piped water in their homes). But a 2008 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF shows that 2.5 billion still don't have access to better sanitation — and 1.2 billion of those don't have any sanitation facilities at all.
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Global health officials still have a long way to go before most countries are able to enjoy safe sanitation facilities and healthy drinking water for all of its communities. But the simple act of washing hands can cut deaths from diarrheal illnesses by as much as 50% (or almost 2 million people). In fact, hand washing is the most effective — and cheapest — way to prevent diarrheal infections. That's because dirty hands carry infectious germs into the body when kids bite their nails, suck their thumbs, eat with their fingers, or put any part of their hands into their mouths.
On the homefront, parents can help keep many infectious illnesses at bay by making sure kids understand how to wash their hands the right way. They need to learn how to use warm soap and water to scrub (both sides of the hands, the wrists, between the fingers, and around the nails), then wash for at least 10 to 15 seconds (about as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" nice and slow). When kids wash is important, too. Kids should always lather up before eating and after using the bathroom, blowing their nose, coughing, touching animals, and playing outside or with other kids. In a pinch, hand sanitizers can help fend off most of these nasty germs, too.
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