A Tel Aviv University researcher has come up with an innovative method to educate little boys and girls on the good sense of handwashing, which may help decrease communicable gastrointestinal diseases by 50 per cent and communicable respiratory diseases by 20 per cent.
Dr. Laura Rosen has revealed that she has had astounding success in using a combination of teacher education and teaching tools-such as puppet shows and songs-to increase the practice of handwashing before lunch in participating schools from 25 per cent to about 60 per cent.
Writing about her findings in the journal Health Education Research, she revealed that her team studied 40 pre-schools and kindergartens in the Jerusalem area, and found that teachers were often unaware of the direct connection between handwashing and health.
"There was no connection being made between hygiene and illness, so basic hygiene wasn't being taught," she said.
Some of the practices in the pre-schools and kindergartens, such as the use of communal cups and common towels, indicated the need for education on disease transmission. Many of the educators lacked knowledge of how illness can be transferred.
"We mostly wanted to get the message through to the educators. The teachers had a really important role ? whether the kids were washing their hands or not depended on the teachers," said Dr. Rosen.
With a view to changing the teachers' behaviour, she and her colleagues used a multi-pronged approach that focused on the children as well.
"You need to work on attitude. We ran seminars for teachers and taught them about the transmission of diseases," she said.
Her team next gave the schools the tools they needed to put the theory into practice.
"It was essential to give teachers the tools to change their students' behaviour. Some places didn't even have soap. If you have a population that knows how important it is to wash hands, but doesn't have soap, they aren't in a very good situation. We also wanted to cut back on the sharing of cups, so we gave them individual cups," she said.
Dr. Rosen and her colleagues communicated the importance of handwashing to the educators with the use of a petri dish experiment. They asked educators to put their hands in three dishes: the first without washing their hands, the second after washing with water, and the third after washing with water and soap.
By seeing colours that highlighted the bacteria, the educators could see the effects of handwashing for themselves, says Dr. Rosen.
Dr. Rosen first decided to tackle the issue when she became frustrated with the frequent illnesses of her own young children.
"As a mother, I couldn't figure out what was happening. I was looking for ways to keep my family healthy," she said.
"The major lesson is that hygiene and the transmission of illness are ongoing concerns. And children have better things to do than to be sick all the time," she concluded.