Personal hygiene: Have the basics escaped us?

Hand hygiene should be practised in the correct manner and adhered to at all critical times, especially after using the toilet or before handling food. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

There comes a time when we look back and ask whether history has taught us a lesson and more importantly, whether this lesson has become ingrained in us.

That an almost obsolete hygiene-related disease called cholera is mysteriously back with us, and in places you would least expect to contract it, should make us ask ourselves hard questions.

The authorities have acknowledged that the disease is spreading and has already claimed some lives and led some food outlets to close their doors.

This shouldn’t be the case in this day and age; yet, the fact that this monster has reared its ugly head is a major indictment of our primary health system.

Where did we go wrong? We forgot the basics. The basics of good hygiene. We all need a reset.

The fact of the matter is that cholera thrives on poor personal hygiene and failure to adhere to simple standards of food production.

Back in school, we were taught how to do a lot of what we may have considered basic, many of these lessons have stuck with us. However, some of these lessons may have faded away from memory, but we need to retrace our steps back to the ABCs of personal hygiene if we are to keep the outbreaks from becoming full-blown epidemics.

If you ask people what causes cholera, most know the ‘obvious’ answers: open sewers, unsafe drinking water, food cooked in unhygienic conditions – the list is long. But we dropped the ball somewhere. We know, but we don’t act.


Here is a rough guide to avoiding cholera. Avoid raw or uncooked foods, salads (if you are unsure of their origin), unnecessary handshakes and drinking tap water. Of all the principles of personal hygiene, handwashing comes tops.

Hand hygiene should be practised in the correct manner and adhered to at all critical times, especially after using the toilet or before handling food.

Protecting yourself and your family from germs and infections saves you trips to the doctor and minimises your chances of spreading germs.

This simple act prevents diseases in a more cost-effective way than any single vaccine, and it is considered the most cost-effective public health intervention.

Studies by the World Bank have shown a Sh335 investment in handwashing brings the same benefit as a Sh1,100 investment in latrine promotion and a Sh22,300 investment in household water supply connection.

Handwashing may feel like a light matter to address, but it is now the next frontier in fighting the spread of diseases.

As of March 2016, access to handwashing facilities with soap has been recognised as an indicator of whether a country will achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 (ensure available and sustainable water and sanitation for all).

A campaign by Lifebuoy to teach young children the critical need for handwashing has gained global traction.

The campaign aims at changing the hygiene habits of one billion people in Africa by 2020, and to change the handwashing behaviour of 12 million Kenyans by 2020. While this is no mean feat, it has already been proven possible.

More than 200,000 school children were reached through the Lifebuoy School of 5 handwashing behaviour change programme that took place between February and April 2017 leading to the second phase of the campaign targeting another 200,000 between the months of June to August this year.

 During this 21-day programme, children are practically taught the correct way of washing their hands to ensure that all germs are gotten rid of.

The United Nations Children’s Fund explains that this simple habit can prevent cholera-related deaths by up to 40 per cent.

 According to UNICEF, diarrhoea remains the second largest cause of under-five mortality globally. So important is the handwashing habit that UNICEF says it is instrumental in the fight against Ebola.

It is a long shot but the basics did not escape us – we just forgot them. But if we start now, we will be able to save lives, be more proactive in hygiene matters, speak out against littering and the horrible waste water management systems in place.

Our children depend on us for this moral guidance. Good hygiene and sanitation starts with me and you.



Dr Sidibe is the Lifebuoy Hygiene and Nutrition Social Mission Director Africa