Kenya set a new handwashing record. So what?

Oct 29, 2010


A few days ago, Kenya beat India to set a new record for the “Most people washing their hands at the same time.”

Over 19,000 children and adults washed their hands at a primary school on the outskirts of Nairobi. This record, which was previously held at about 14,000 by India seemed a noble way to celebrate this year's Global Handwashing Day, particularly given that hand washing with soap is the single most cost effective health intervention to prevent diarrheoa. For a country like Kenya that experiences hundreds of needless child deaths as a result of preventable diseases such as diarrheoa, any intervention to reduce child mortality should be readily embraced. A report released several months ago stated that only one in every 10 Kenyan adults washed their hands after going to the toilet!

The multinational company that sponsored this record-breaking feat has since packed away its soap and moved on, the cameras are off, and the crowd has fizzled away.  The school, which was the venue for this great fete has reverted to being a simple school on the outskirts of Nairobi. It's left me asking: So we beat the world record on hand washing, so what? What impact does this have on the country's hygiene and sanitation status?

In principle, the government recognizes that hygiene and sanitation is a basic human right. Kenya's National Environmental Sanitation and Hygiene Policy of 2007, developed by the Ministry of Health through the Division of Environmental Health states in part that, “as a basic human right, all Kenyans should be able to live with dignity in a hygienic and sanitary environment. It is therefore the government's aim to ensure that all households and communities understand what constitutes a healthy human environment and that they adopt attitudes and practices that create and sustain such an environment.”

In addition, in March of this year the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation launched a new Diarrhoeal Disease Control Policy, which included hygiene as a key intervention for controlling diarrhoea across the country.

Granted, government may be seen not to be doing as much as it should or could - a debate that has raged for ages, especially with reference to third-world governments. Regardless, initiatives by government and its partners must be sustainable. They must also address change in behavior and attitude; thereby ensuring communities understand the principle underlying the particular intervention and can pass this on to future generations.

So from my perspective, beating the hand washing record might have been a fun event, but in the end, big deal. For me, the commendable record to beat and document would be a sustained behavior change, where not one, but 10 out of every 10 Kenyans washed their hands at critical times. Now that would be THE record to break!