#WHA71 Themes: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

By Hayley Leake (University of South Australia) 

Washing your hands seems like a simple task. An unconscious part of everyday life for most Australians and healthcare workers. But for people in many parts of the world it’s a different story. Access to clean water and hygiene is a serious issue.

“Almost 40% of healthcare facilities lack a water supply in low- and middle-income countries.”

Lack of access to water and hygiene results in serious gaps in healthcare, unnecessary spread of infectious diseases, and a violation of human rights. A healthcare worker from South Sudan provided some insight. Currently there is no water in healthcare facilities, and no sanitation. Pregnant women are asked to bring jerry cans of water with them to hospital, at times a 100km walk. Instead of a toilet, women defecate in the bush, then after delivery they are asked to wipe themselves clean with a towel. 

Unfortunately, babies themselves face huge challenges. Three babies die very five minutes in Sub-Saharan Africa or Southern Asia from highly preventable causes such as diarrhoea, sepsis, meningitis and tetanus - all of which are strongly linked to unhygienic conditions. 

The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa was a pivotal moment, the importance of water and hygiene was a strong focus. In 2015 WHO and UNICEF launched their first global report on the status of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in healthcare facilities. Alongside this, they released an infection prevention and control (IPC) action plan. Many countries have taken this up with great success. Mauritania has developed a national committee to implement WASH and IPC programmes. In Liberia, to get around their lack of access to electricity, they are starting to power bore holes with solar panels.

There is still much to be done. The solution will involve ongoing awareness campaigns, government commitment to fund programs like WASH, implementation and monitoring of programs, culturally appropriate health education and a shift in social norms to adopt these practices. 

If the global health community is serious about achieving their goal of ‘health care for all’ then we need to start by equipping facilities with basic necessities, like water and soap. The WHO Director of Public Health, Dr. Maria Neira left us a salient question - “Can we really call them healthcare centres if there is no access to water and soap?”