Health Watch - The Power of Soap

Health Watch is a Public Service of the Office of News and Publications and is intended to provide general information only and should not replace the advice of a medical professional. You should contact your physician if you have questions about any of these topics.

Something you have in your home could help cut the rate of a potentially deadly disease around the world.

About 5,000 children around the world die every day of diarrhea, according to the World Health Organization. Researchers with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that death rate could drop drastically with the regular use of soap and water. In a recent study conducted among the refugee slums of Pakistan, doctors were able to cut the rate of diarrhea in infants and small children almost in half by issuing soap to families.

The children the most affected by diarrhea are too young to wash their hands, but researchers found that getting family members to wash their hands frequently helped lower the rate of disease among small children. People used their regular water - which is often dirty and contaminated - to wash their hands. Health education teams issued free soap and taught families to wash after using the bathroom or changing a diaper and before preparing food, eating or feeding a baby. The study didn't continue long enough to measure whether or not the death rate dropped, but the rate of disease did drop dramatically.

You don't have to live in the slums of a third-world country to see the benefits of soap and water. Doctors at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas say hand washing can help Americans avoid a number of illnesses. Germs are often carried or transmitted on the hands, so washing them can help prevent many infections. Dr. Paul Pepe, UT Southwestern's chairman of emergency medicine, suggests using warm water and soap and rubbing hands together for at least 30 seconds.


June 2004