Disease looms in schools over use of dirty toilets

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Sodiq Ojuroungbe

When COVID-19 raged across the globe, bringing with it deaths and lockdowns, measures were put in place to curb its spread as well as that of other diseases. Among the public health guidelines enforced by the state governments in Nigeria was the provision of hand washing facilities, especially in public places. Three years down the line, there are reports that some public schools in the country have not only jettisoned this life-saving measure but have become custodians of disease-breeding toilets that lack basic water supply.

For example, before leaving home daily, Tolani Adeoye (not real name), ensures she defecated, to avoid making use of the school toilet tucked on the far side of the sprawling premises of her school. The senior secondary school student said she dreaded going close to the three toilets available for use due to their sordid, filthy state. For four years, Adeoye religiously followed the same routine to avoid using the toilets, which had also been abandoned by most of the students because of the way they reeked of urine and excreta.

Giving a graphic description of the school restrooms, Adeoye told a journalist that the toilets’ ceramic bowls were always filled with urine and feces, and smelled horribly due to lack of water to flush them.  She lamented that despite having a cleaner whose duty was to ensure that the toilets stayed clean, they remained in a deplorable state. The teenager claimed that just like her, other students detest using the school toilets and would rather wait till they get home to use the restroom.

She said: “The toilets are so bad that I will never ever enter them. Even if you are passing by, the stench will make you hold your breath and run away. The condition is very deplorable despite having cleaners that are paid to keep them tidy. I am not sure they go near the toilets.”

Sadly, this scenario is not peculiar to just one secondary school. In the course of carrying out this report, it was discovered that several public schools in the country have a binding factor – poor sanitation and low hygiene level. It is expected that to maintain good hygiene in schools, students must have access to running water to flush toilets and thoroughly wash their hands to ward off infection.

However, this is not obtainable in the schools visited, as the students lamented that they lacked decent toilets and access to running water. They said the toilets were either blocked or dirty due to the unavailability of water, noting that on most days, they were left with no choice but to defecate in the open. The World Health Organisation and United Nations Children’s Fund Joint Monitoring Programme identified Nigeria as one of the countries with high prevalence of open defecation (OD) practices in the world, where 25 per cent to 50 per cent of its citizens engage in it shamelessly.

According to the WHO/UNICEF JMP on Water Supply, OD is the practice of relieving oneself in fields, bushes, bodies of water and other open spaces. Target 6.2 of the UN-SDGs mandates countries to end open defecation and provide access to sufficient and even-handed sanitation and hygiene, especially to women and girls prone to socioeconomic and cultural risks.

The WHO recommends that an individual is supposed to use at least 15 litres of water in times of a disease outbreak to prevent spread, while girls may require more, especially during their monthly menstrual period. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the absence of basic sanitation facilities can result in the contamination of the environment by human waste. It states: “Without proper sanitation facilities, waste from infected individuals can contaminate a community’s land and water, increasing the risk of infection for other individuals. Proper waste disposal can slow the infection cycle of many disease-causing agents. Without proper sanitation facilities, people often have no choice but to live in and drink water from an environment contaminated with waste from infected individuals, thereby putting themselves at risk for future infection.”

While most of the public schools might boast of an outward clean environment, observers report that behind the facade lie sordid toilets that are eyesores, dehumanizing in outlook. It was gathered that the poor sanitary conditions in these schools were not unconnected with overstretched infrastructure. An investigation conducted by our correspondent showed that the poor state of the toilets poses serious public health concerns as the students cannot answer the call of nature under such deplorable conditions.

Apart from poor sanitary conditions, our correspondent discovered that toilets, in schools visited, lacked water supply and basic hand washing items. The Universal Basic Education Commission in its 2018 National Personnel Audit report, launched by ex-President Muhammadu Buhari, noted that toilets were very important in schools because apart from guaranteeing hygiene and good health, they encouraged attendance and reversed dropouts. “It is probably for this reason that toilets are considered as one of the facilities that contribute to the creation of child-friendly schools,” the report stated. The report, however, revealed that 50 per cent of public primary schools do not have toilets, unlike private schools with about 85 per cent. It also noted that many states have low percentage of public primary schools with toilets.

 When our correspondent gained access to the toilets used by students of some high schools and some nursery schools he confirmed that they were filthy and lined with excreta. One of the secondary schools bore tales of decay and deterioration, which seemed to have set in over time. The stench oozing from the toilets hung deeply in the environment. The toilets had no seat covers and had broken flushers, while some of the doors were just being held in place by fragments of wood and rusty nails.

A similar situation was obtainable at a nursery and primary school. The toilets were no different. Meanwhile, toilets meant for the pupils, our correspondent gathered, had been abandoned and were no longer in use. During the visit, the pupils were seen urinating at a corner of the school compound. Pretending he wanted to ease himself, our correspondent asked to use the toilet meant for the pupils, but was instead, directed to a staff toilet which appeared partially clean. A pupil of the school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the teachers usually allowed some of them to go home if they wanted to defecate. He said: “My house is not far from the school. Whenever I want to defecate, I will be allowed to go home. It is only the teachers’ toilets that are manageable and we are not allowed in there. We have abandoned our toilets because there is no water supply.”

 Our correspondent also discovered that in some schools, only two or three toilets serve a large population of students. According to Lagos School Online, the official portal for all schools in Lagos, the population of pupils in some of their schools is above 1000, while there are 23 teachers and 13 non-teaching staff. Findings by our correspondent, however, showed that only three toilets serve the whole school population. According to some of the students, the toilets were in very bad shape but pupils had no other option than to use them.

Hand washing facilities and supplies were expected to be a major priority in all schools because of their importance in preventing communicable diseases. In 2020, some state governments took hand washing advocacy to public schools across the country to contain the deadly COVID-19 infection. Public schools were provided with items including liquid soap, hand sanitizers, basins and buckets, among others. But findings by our correspondent revealed that they were no longer in use.

In one primary school, it was discovered that the hand washing basin, which was empty, had been dumped at the entrance to one of the classrooms. Our correspondent did not see any soap or hand sanitizer. The students told him that the mandatory hand washing protocol no longer existed in the school.

 The WHO revealed that a gramme of feces from an infected person could have up to 10,000,000 viruses, 1,000,000 bacteria and 1000 parasite cysts, as well as 100 parasite eggs. According to the CDC, feces, either from people or animals play host to germs like Salmonella, E. coli O15, and norovirus that cause diarrhoea, and can spread respiratory infections like adenovirus and handfoot-and-mouth disease.

 Speaking against this backdrop, a public health physician, Dr. Adeola Ogunsanya, cautioned that unclean restrooms were not only filthy but might also serve as breeding grounds for infectious diseases and germs. He explained that if toilets were not properly cleaned, they might quickly turn into a formidable source of infection. Speaking exclusively to our correspondent, the expert noted that women who use dirty restrooms were more likely to contract illnesses because of their reproductive body structure and location. Dr. Ogunsanya said: “Poorly maintained restrooms can have several unfavourable effects. The possibility of disease transmission and infection is among the main problems associated with dirty toilets. They can be a haven for bacteria and germs, and if they are not regularly cleaned and maintained, could quickly turn into disease colonies. Pupils would be susceptible to illness, and there is a chance that diseases like the norovirus and Escherichia coli, which are particularly harmful to those with weakened immune systems, will spread.”

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