Un, dos, tres, cuatro… stepping up to health education

You may already be familiar with ‘salsa choke’ (pronounced choq-ue) if you caught the Colombian football team in action during the World Cup last year, in what became their trademark celebration dance. An urban street-style version of the well-known Latin American dance, salsa choke is very popular with young people here in Colombia. But why am I talking about it here and what possible relevance could it have to promoting good hand washing and hygiene practices in schools?

To mark ‘World Hand Washing Day’ in October, I hit the road with the health programmes team from Save the Children Colombia, running a series of activities with schools to help raise awareness of the link between health and good hygiene and hand washing practices. Our mission was to help children understand the simple, but often ignored, preventative measures that can be taken to avoid becoming sick – such as thorough hand washing before eating and handling food, after visiting the bathroom, and after playing outside.

In partnership with GSK, Save the Children is running a three year programme here in Colombia, focusing on improving health among school children in the regions of Cauca and Nariño where conflict has put children at high risk of exploitation and recruitment into armed groups. The programme aims to help increase the impact of Save the Children’s work by supporting school health and nutrition and introducing GSK’s PHASE (personal hygiene and sanitation education) methodology – including improvements to infrastructure to support the provision of safe drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities, and training in hygiene practices. In areas where water security and availability is a challenge, hand washing and good hygiene practices are the first to suffer. This means many children can be absent from school due to sickness caused by preventable illnesses, such as diarrhoea.

One of the simple tools used in the GSK ‘PHASE’ programme is a guide on thorough hand washing. With the aim of explaining the link between poor hand washing and sickness, we set out to have some fun with our students. Using glitter to represent germs, the children’s hands were ‘infected’ through glittery handshakes to show how easily bacteria can spread, unseen, through even the briefest contact. A demonstration of good hand washing principles followed, using simple actions named after familiar animals or phrases.

The real challenge was how to encourage the children to remember, and use, these simple actions every time they wash their hands and why it is important. The answer – dance! Having learned five simple hand washing steps, the children grouped together to cook up some choreography, incorporating these actions, all put together to beating salsa choke music. This of course left only the need for a dance-off – a challenge which the groups took on with great delight.

The competition was fierce and the dancing spectacular. In scenes more reminiscent of a school disco than a workshop on hygiene, our teams danced and stomped their way through their routines with the broadest smiles and the most perfectly executed hand washing simulations. And with such memorable moves, we left everyone with very clean hands. Check out the results for yourself in this brief film clip

Hands 'infected' with glitter

Hands ‘infected’ with glitter

Dancing in Quilcace

Dancing in Quilcace

Salsa choke dancing the handwashing steps

Salsa choke dancing the hand washing steps

Wrapping up with some thorough hand washing

Wrapping up with some thorough hand washing