Each year on October 15th, over 200 million people in over 100 countries take part in celebrations to mark Global Handwashing Day. This year the theme is Our hands, our future! This theme reminds us that handwashing protects our own health, but also allows us to build our own futures, as well as those of our communities, and the world.
School children are exposed to all kinds of germs and bacteria that they wouldn’t usually come into contact with at home. Children are naturally curious and exploring things by touch can cause their hands to become a breeding ground for germs and bacteria, which could make them and others seriously ill. According to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Britain’s cases of norovirus, gastroenteritis and swine flu infections are primarily down to dirty hands. Hands are often the main vehicle for transmitting germs by contact with others and through surfaces such as door handles and toilet flushes.
The simplest way for schools and parents to help avoid illnesses at school is that age-old mantra of effective hand washing. It is drummed into all of us from early childhood, yet it has been estimated that one in five people still fail to wash their hands after visiting the washroom.
What are the risks of poor hand hygiene?
Young children are placed at a substantial risk of illness through the transfer of germs within school, and are often unaware of the dangers of sub-standard hand washing. As a consequence, on average, children contract three to eight colds each year.
Hand washing correctly with soap could protect about one in three young children who get sick with diarrhoea and almost one in five young children with respiratory infections like pneumonia. This emphasises how important it is for children to learn how to wash their hands as early as possible, in order to minimise the risk of contracting anything more harmful than a common cold.
It is important to note that water alone does not clean hands effectively. Over 75% of people either don’t wash their hands at all or don’t use soap to clean their hands properly.  This lack of education about the importance of soap when washing their hands could be contributing heavily to the spread of infectious diseases in school. A survey by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine unearthed that only 63.8% of primary school children regularly washed their hands with soap at school, a figure which dropped to 39% for secondary school children.
Inadequate hand washing can also impact absenteeism in schools. The largest contributor to absences from school is illness, which constitutes almost 60% of all absences across schools in England. Annually, nearly 22 million school days are lost each year due to the common cold. Teachers and children alike are missing school because of easily avoidable illnesses, which could be greatly reduced by correct hand hygiene techniques being taught, particularly in primary schools. Absenteeism in children can massively impact their learning and class performance. Absenteeism also affects parents, who are forced to take time off to look after their ill children.
What can schools do to help?
Every primary school in the UK is obliged to teach children how to maintain personal hygiene and improve their health and wellbeing as part of the National Curriculum. Schools must adhere to this and value effective hand washing as a priority within schools to improve attendance and reduce illnesses, and one way this can be done is by informing school children of the generally accepted technique for hand washing.
The correct technique is to wet, lather, scrub, rinse and dry, however this aspect of hygiene education isn’t being effectively taught in school. Many school children are unaware of the importance of correct and thorough hand washing, or the impact it may have on their health. If schools were to make the hand washing procedure fun, engaging and memorable for school children, then it is likely to increase overall hand hygiene compliance.
Teachers and parents also have a responsibility to promote hand hygiene awareness and compliance to school children. Both should be leading by example and be seen to wash their own hands frequently throughout the day, using the proper techniques.
In order to reduce germ transfer, it is advisable that primary schools set up a sealed cartridge soap dispensing system, a far more hygienic, economical and environmentally-friendly option than bar soap or bulk fill systems. These dispensing systems are easy to operate for children, and maintenance costs are minimal for schools.
To further encourage hand hygiene compliance and reduce the transfer of bacteria, schools must also understand the value of investing in brightly coloured and attractive dispensers to help engage children in the hand washing process. In addition to these visually enticing dispensers, schools should also ensure that education materials are in plentiful supply throughout the school. Posters for children on how and why they should wash their hands with soap are crucial to reinforce the message, as is providing teachers with well thought-out lesson plans and activities on the topic.
The importance of hand hygiene is a decidedly overlooked issue by most education systems, but it must be prioritised to combat illness and disease in schools. Effectively conveying the importance of hand hygiene compliancy from an early age and getting children into the habit of washing their hands as part of a daily routine at school and at home will help to ensure that this practise becomes part of their lifelong routine.
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