ONE in three primary schools worldwide do not have hand-washing facilities. Photographer: Tracey Adams/African News Agency(ANA
ONE in three primary schools worldwide do not have hand-washing facilities. Photographer: Tracey Adams/African News Agency(ANA

Hands are the principal carriers of disease-causing germs; hand-washing is key

By Viwe Ndongeni-Ntlebi Time of article published Oct 14, 2021

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Hand-washing is a significant part of health measures to control the coronavirus pandemic and other illnesses.

South Africa, along with the rest of the world, will celebrate Global Hand-washing Day on Friday, a day dedicated to increasing awareness and understanding about the importance of hand-washing as an effective and affordable way to prevent diseases and save lives.

Hand-washing has long been touted as an effective weapon in the arsenal against death and disease. Illnesses such as intestinal infectious disease (including diarrhoea) and respiratory illnesses (including influenza and pneumonia), which are among the leading causes of death for children under the age of five in South Africa, are illnesses that can be prevented through improved hygiene practices. This includes hand-washing.

Evidence published by the Department of Health shows that hand-washing can reduce the incidence of diarrhoea by as much as 50% and respiratory infections by almost 25%.

According to the World Health Organization and WaterAid, hands are the principal carriers of disease-causing germs. In addition, they list the following facts about hand- washing:

  • Hands are the principal carriers of disease-causing germs.
  • Only 1 in 5 (19%) people globally wash their hands with soap after going to the bathroom.
  • One in three primary schools worldwide do not have hand-washing facilities.
  • About 443 million school days are lost every year because of water-related illnesses.
  • Hand-washing with soap reduces the risk of diarrhoeal diseases by 42-47%.

Lack of access to sanitation and poor hygiene contribute to approximately 88% of childhood deaths caused by diarrhoeal diseases.

Many infections begin when we touch our mouth, nose or eyes. Which is why scientists advise against touching those areas, to prevent illness. But with little ones, that may be a hard rule to follow. Experts say washing of hands regularly is a more effective way.

“It’s crucial for hand-washing habits to be instilled from a young age, so having this education as part of the school curriculum is vital,” Nitin Besesar, senior brand manager; personal care at Unilever, said.

Over 4 million Grade 1 learners in 15 000 schools have now received hand-washing behaviour change education since 2018 through the National Schools Hygiene and Sanitation Programme – an initiative undertaken in partnership with Unilever and the Department of Basic Education (DBE).

“We are pleased that the DBE has chosen to include Lifebuoy’s hand-washing education materials in the 2022 Life Orientation learner workbooks for grades 4-6.

“We have also been working with the DBE, Unicef, the African Publishers Association and the Publishers Association of SA to change the way the letter H is taught in schools, to make H for Hand-washing and to make hand-washing a more fundamental aspect of education from an early age,” Nitin Besesar said.

The DBE and Lifebuoy commemorated the expansion of the programme in the Western Cape at Zimasa Primary School in Ilanga. The programme includes a further 224 040 Grade 1 learners in 1 327 schools.

Dr Granville Whittle, deputy director-general; care and support in schools at the DBE, said: “it’s encouraging to see more learners adopting regular hand-washing with soap at school – especially in the context of Covid-19. We, together with our partners, have been doing our best to ensure learners understand the importance of regular hand-washing and have access to soap and water at school. With the expansion of the programme into the Western Cape, we hope to impact even more learners and their communities with this life-saving information.”

Programme facilitators visited 25 schools in Gauteng, Free State, Mpumalanga and North West for monitoring and evaluation and reported a positive uptake and increase in hand-washing – not just among Grade 1 learners taking part in the programme, but throughout the grades.

One educator from Olifantsvlei Primary School in Gauteng said: “The whole programme works because it brings light to learners and parents about good hygiene. As a result, learners attend more school and suffer less from illnesses caused by germs. So, there are no learners that are missing out on their school work.”

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