Schools, depending on their access to and quality of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and the implementation of healthy behaviours, can be critical for the control and spread of many infectious diseases, including COVID-19. Schools provide opportunities for pupils to learn about the importance of hygiene and WASH-related practice, and build healthy habits and skills, with beneficial medium- and long-term consequences particularly in low- and middle-income countries: reducing pupils' absenteeism due to diseases, promoting physical, mental and social health, and improving learning outcomes. WASH services alone are often not sufficient and need to be combined with educational programmes. As pupils disseminate their acquired health-promoting knowledge to their (extended) families, improved WASH provisions and education in schools have beneficial effects also on the community. International organisations frequently roll out interventions in schools to improve WASH services and, in some cases, train pupils and teachers on safe WASH behaviours. How such interventions relate to local school education on WASH, health promotion and disease prevention knowledge, whether and how such knowledge and school books are integrated into WASH education interventions in schools, are knowledge gaps we fill.
We analyzed how Kenyan primary school science text book content supports WASH and health education by a book review including books used from class 1 through class 8, covering the age range from 6 to 13 years. We then conducted a rapid literature review of combined WASH interventions that included a behaviour change or educational component, and a rapid review of international policy guidance documents to contextualise the results and understand the relevance of books and school education for WASH interventions implemented by international organisations. We conducted a content analysis based on five identified thematic categories, including drinking water, sanitation, hygiene, environmental hygiene & health promotion and disease risks, and mapped over time the knowledge about WASH and disease prevention.
The books comprehensively address drinking water issues, including sources, quality, treatment, safe storage and water conservation; risks and transmission pathways of various waterborne (Cholera, Typhoid fever), water-based (Bilharzia), vector-related (Malaria) and other communicable diseases (Tuberculosis); and the importance of environmental hygiene and health promotion. The content is broadly in line with internationally recommended WASH topics and learning objectives. Gaps remain on personal hygiene and handwashing, including menstrual hygiene, sanitation education, and related health risks and disease exposures. The depth of content varies greatly over time and across the different classes. Such locally available education materials already used in schools were considered by none of the WASH education interventions in the considered intervention studies.
The thematic gaps/under-representations in books that we identified, namely sanitation, hygiene and menstrual hygiene education, are all high on the international WASH agenda, and need to be filled especially now, in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Disconnects exist between school book knowledge and WASH education interventions, between policy and implementation, and between theory and practice, revealing missed opportunities for effective and sustainable behaviour change, and underlining the need for better integration. Considering existing local educational materials and knowledge may facilitate the buy-in and involvement of teachers and school managers in strengthening education and implementing improvements. We suggest opportunities for future research, behaviour change interventions and decision-making to improve WASH in schools.