Student grime fighters help youngsters clean up their act
Form Four student Siu Hiu-ki, 15, spent three hours last Wednesday after school attending a puppetry course led by instructors from the Ming Ri Institute for Arts Education, learning scriptwriting, prop sewing and performance techniques.
It was all in a day's work for Hiu-ki, one of 44 student leaders for the fourth annual Global Handwashing Day on October 15. Recruited by the Hong Kong Committee for Unicef, these volunteers are being equipped with creative skills that will be used to promote personal hygiene and hand washing to younger children.
In teams of four, the student leaders will take their puppet shows on the road to more than 20 kindergartens citywide until the end of the year, as part of Unicef's new 'hand washing school promotion campaign'.
'We volunteered because we love to help others and enjoy playing with children,' says Hiu-ki, who is joined by her Belilios Public School mates Ngai Tsz-kwan, Lau Hok-kee and Fok Hei-nam, all 15.
A week earlier at Unicef's Happy Valley office, the students had a session with Dr Yang Zhenbo, chief of the water, sanitation and hygiene programme for Unicef China, where they learned about the organisation's water and sanitation projects around the world, and were taught proper hand washing.
'We didn't know it involved so many steps,' Hok-kee says. 'We usually just rub our hands with fingers crossed.'
Clean hands are important because they save lives. The statistics are grim: Yang cites the latest figures from a study last year in The Lancet, which found that some 8.8 million children under five years of age died in 2008, two-thirds of whom died from infectious diseases such as pneumonia (18 per cent) and diarrhoea (15 per cent).
Many lives could be saved by the simple act of hand washing. Yang says 88 per cent of deaths from diarrhoea were due to lack of safe water, sanitation or hygiene, while 23 per cent of pneumonia deaths could have been avoided by hand washing with soap.
New studies suggest that hand washing promotion in schools can play a role in reducing absenteeism among primary school children. On the mainland, for example, promotion and distribution of soap in primary schools over a five-month period resulted in 54 per cent fewer days of absence among students compared to schools without such an intervention, according to a 2007 study in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
That's why the Hong Kong Committee for Unicef's initiative targets schools. Global Handwashing Day promotional kits will be handed out to local schools free of charge, consisting of posters, stickers, video and audio materials, as well as a planner's guide. Subsidies and a travel allowance will also be given to student leaders for conducting school tours. 'Children can be catalysts for change,' says Simmy Li, an assistant manager at the Hong Kong Committee for Unicef.
Globally, hand washing isn't as common as you think. Yang says that through observational surveys, hand washing with soap at critical times, such as after using the toilet and before handling food, ranges from zero to 34 per cent.
He notes that the low figure typically comes from developing countries, where clean water, soap and sanitation are lacking.
'But we can't say that in developed countries the rate is 100 per cent,' he says. 'A lot of people have the mindset that our environment is better and free from contaminants, so we don't have to wash our hands all the time.'
The fact is that hands are vehicles for disease-causing pathogens, travelling from person to person either through direct contact or indirectly via surfaces.
Hands that are not washed thoroughly with soap after being in contact with human or animal faeces, bodily fluids like nasal excretions, and contaminated food or water can transport bacteria, viruses and parasites to unwitting hosts.
Water alone is not enough, and neither is a token sprinkling. Hands need to be washed and scrubbed with soap that's foaming and slippery for 20 seconds - or as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice.
Each person has a duty to everyone else to maintain personal hygiene. Take Sars for example: several studies done during the outbreak in 2003 showed that hand washing with soap more than 10 times a day could reduce Sars transmission by 55 per cent.
'Hand washing is not just one person's business,' says Yang. 'It's everyone's business.'
Handy tips for squeaky clean mitts
1 Squeeze some soap or sanitiser gel onto the palm of one hand. Rub palm to palm.
2 Rub the back of interlaced fingers.
3 Rub palms again with fingers interlaced.
4 Rub both palms with fingertips.
5 Rub thumbs with opposite palms.
6 Rub both wrists. Wash hands under running water using soap. Rinse and dry thoroughly.
The entire sequence should take about 20 seconds - just sing Happy Birthday twice.