(Note: First published here and here.)
The statistics are grim. Over 1.5 million children under five die each year as a result of diarrhoea. It is the second most common cause of child deaths worldwide. To put that in perspective, more children die of diarrhoea each year than the total number of people killed by terrorist attacks worldwide between 2006-13. And yet the ‘war on diarrhoea’ has a very simple and inexpensive solution: handwashing.
Handwashing with soap before eating or preparing food and after using the toilet can reduce diarrhoea rates by more than 40 per cent. It is one of the most cost effective means available to us to reduce the burden of diarrhoeal diseases. Given such widespread health benefits of washing hands with soap, one would assume this would be a common habit around the world. Yet, in reality, global rates of handwashing with soap are low, ranging from nothing to 34 percent.
A key reason for this is lack of awareness. While soap is present in the vast majority of even poor households, its use is prioritised for washing clothes, utensils and bathing. Clearly, awareness is needed on a mass scale to inculcate this critical good hygiene behaviour. And the earlier this awareness starts the better, as children are fantastic ambassadors for change. Most hygiene awareness programmes therefore concentrate on children, in the hope that they will become long-lasting change agents, and will help cascade good hygiene practices across their families and communities.
But one barrier for all hygiene awareness programmes is scale and reach.
With an area of 308,252 km² and a population of over 75 million, Madhya Pradesh is the second largest state in India and faced this exact dilemma. In a country like India, adoption of mass awareness programs that can reach millions becomes imperative; but how can local governments reach such a huge number of people, across such a vast area, with hygiene behaviour changes that will actually stick? In 2014, the Madhya Pradesh’s Department of Panchayat and Rural Development (PRD) came up with a unique solution.
Attempt to break a world record
To create mass awareness among children about the importance of handwashing with soap, Madhya Pradesh would try to beat the Guinness World Record for most people washing their hands in multiple locations. To do so, the PRD mobilised an incredible 10 million school children across the state to wash their hands simultaneously on a single day, 2 million of whom would be documented for the record attempt. Appropriately, this massive event was scheduled for 15 October – Global Handwashing Day.
I was present in Bhopal, the state capital, from about a week before the event to provide communications support to WaterAid’s MPWASH programme. MPWASH supported the Madhya Pradesh state government in executing this gargantuan exercise, so I got a wonderful opportunity to observe it firsthand.
Girls attempt to break a world record for Global Handwashing Day 2014, Bhopal, Madya Pradesh, India. © WaterAid/ Areeb Hashmi
Girls learn the correct steps of handwashing in the attempt to break a world record for Global Handwashing Day 2014, Bhopal, Madya Pradesh, India.
Preparations began months before. From registering the event with Guinness so that it could be considered for a world record, to training the people involved, everything had to be planned meticulously on a massive scale.
The numbers were mind boggling! Apart from the 2 million school children whose handwashing would be recorded, 40,000 witnesses and 20,000 teachers from 20,000 locations across the state needed to be identified, then trained by 300 facilitators so that the event would go off smoothly. The teachers then trained the 2 million children in the correct steps of handwashing. In accordance to Guinness guidelines, more than 20,000 photographers and videographers also had to be recruited and trained to provide uncut evidence shots of the event.
A web portal with a SMS-based reporting system was specially developed to help with this enormous effort. To count each child, special hand bands and data recording sheets were created. 3 million of these were distributed to 100,000 participating schools. 500,000 soaps were also donated by Reckitt Benckiser, while the PRD supplied the necessary handwashing facilities. A full rehearsal was also conducted two days before the event to ensure preparedness.
Finally, on 15 October 2014, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh launched the attempt in a special event in Bhopal. From 11:00am to 12:00pm, children from across the state tried to make history.
The hard work, the planning – it all paid off. Everything ran like clockwork on the day. Children participated enthusiastically and media covered the event widely. During the days that followed, handwashing data poured in through the web portal, requiring the complex task of accurately compiling and verifying data sheets and handwashing numbers according to guidelines laid down by Guinness.
A total of 19,600 locations successfully submitted their data, and it took about a month for all this evidence to reach the central collection point. Here it was verified and checked by a team of 50 volunteers for another two months. Once they had checked and verified all the numbers, this completed data and evidence was submitted to Guinness – who in turn requested an independent audit firm to scrutinise the numbers. This took another month.
After a rigorous verification process – including visiting a certain number of schools in each district and meeting students, teachers and witnesses – the auditors finally concluded how many participants had successfully adhered to Guinness World Record requirements. A total of 1,276,425 children had simultaneously washed their hands in 13,196 locations across 51 districts of Madhya Pradesh. This easily surpassed the previous record of 740,870, achieved in an event organised by the Pan American Health Organization at multiple venues in Argentina, Mexico and Peru on 14 October 2011.
On 1 July 2015, Guinness World Records officially declared that Madhya Pradesh had set a new world record for the most number of people washing hands in multiple locations.
An important legacy
But looking beyond the numbers, the one important and enduring legacy of the world record event will be the prominence it provided to the importance of handwashing with soap. Even the Prime Minister of India lauded the event as a great example for creating hygiene awareness.
I hope that each one of the millions of children who participated in the event will be a potential change ambassador who will ensure a healthier India. Then we can truly celebrate this wonderful achievement.