GUIMARAS ISLAND, Philippines (October 23, 2012) — Schoolchildren in this small, hilly province in central Philippines may just have a new favorite 'subject'—handwashing and tooth-brushing—which is now included in their daily curriculum.
In recent years, teaching elementary school children the habits of washing their hands with soap and brushing their teeth with fluoride has been an ongoing campaign of the Philippine Department of Education. Through its Essential Health Care Program (EHCP), supported by UNICEF, the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), local NGO Fit for School and private sector partner Procter & Gamble, the Department of Education promotes proper hand-washing and tooth-brushing, as well as deworming, among kindergarten and elementary school children.
UNICEF and corporate partner Procter & Gamble joined the effort in 2010. UNICEF’s participation in the program has added more than 3,000 schools to the initial reach of the program.
At 10:30 a.m., students at Piña Elementary School file towards recently built washing troughs outside their classrooms. They stand up to 10 abreast and chant the songs 'Ten Little Children' and 'Happy Birthday' to pace their tooth-brushing and handwashing. The children smile and giggle.
But the activity is more than fun. Lifelong personal hygiene habits essential to protecting against infection and disease are being instilled.
Already, EHCP has resulted in significant improvements in the children’s health and academic performance.
“Regular handwashing and tooth-brushing are the simplest and cheapest ways to prevent diseases among our children,” says UNICEF Philippines WASH specialist Jon Villaseñor. “For just Php25, or roughly 50 cents—the cost of supplying soap, toothpaste and two deworming tablets—one Filipino child can already be supported through one year of the program,” he adds.
Diseases such as diarrhea can largely be prevented by handwashing with soap at critical times of the day, such as before eating and after using the toilet. In fact, studies show that introducing regular handwashing with soap in primary schools and day care centers can help reduce the incidence of diarrhea by an average of 30%.
Regular tooth-brushing can prevent dental decay, a common cause of absenteeism among Philippine schoolchildren. A Fit For School study on the EHCP program showed that, when properly implemented, tooth-brushing can result in reductions of up to 27% in absenteeism, 47% in intestinal worm infection and 38% in oral infection. Children participating in the program are more likely to attend school, stay in school and finish school.
Within a year of introduction, all 97 public elementary schools in Guimaras Province were adopting the program.
As implementing agency, the Department of Education provided ground personnel to supervise the program. Municipal councils were asked to provide supplementary funding. The Department of Health supplied deworming tablets.
Schools were encouraged to build the water and sanitation facilities they could afford. Local communities, civic groups and parents were asked to pitch in with monetary or material contributions or to volunteer their services.
A testament to the success and popularity of the program is that several of the schools have been able to upgrade their washstands from simple, less durable configurations into more permanent facilities.