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Lack of Sanitation: A barrier to health improvements

Posted:  Tuesday, July 07, 2015

The World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) jointly released a report tracking the progress of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). It found that worldwide 1 in 3 people or 2.4 billion people are without proper sanitation facilities. Poor sanitation threatens the progress gained on child survival and safe drinking water.

The Joint Monitoring report titled Progress on sanitation and drinking water: 2015 update and MDG assessment, pinpoints the disparity in the prevailing global model which allows the wealthiest nations to make progress first and then lets the poorer ones catch up. Inadequate investments in behaviour change campaigns; lack of affordable products for the poor; and social norms that accept or even encourage open defecation have impeded progress on sanitation.

Experts worry that the poor progress on sanitation may cast a curse on the substantial improvements seen in the area of safe drinking water. The statistics speak for themselves; since 1990, 91% of the global population has access to safe drinking water and this number is growing. A similar success story has been noted in the rates of child survival too. Now, fewer than 1 000 children under the age of 5 die daily from diarrhoea caused by inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene, compared to over 2000 recorded 15 years ago.

The report also observes the unevenness in the progress on sanitation seen in the period 1990 – 2015; the world has missed the MDG target by nearly 700 million people. “Until everyone has access to adequate sanitation facilities, the quality of water supplies will be undermined and too many people will continue to die from waterborne and water-related diseases,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director, WHO Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.

So how is the trinity of sanitation, safe drinking water and hygiene important?

Securing all the 3 parameters would help ward off 16 of the 17 neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). These NTDs affect more than 1.5 billion people in 149 countries causing blindness, permanent disability and even death. Not just that, open defecation can increase the risk of stunting inflicting permanent damage to physical and cognitive development.

The Sustainable Development Goals, to be set forth in September 15th 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly will set a target to eliminate open defecation and improve sanitation and hygiene by 2030. Special focus will be placed on South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa which would require a doubling of current rates of reduction.

The report suggests addressing the following points for achieving universal access to safe water and good sanitation:

• disaggregated data to be able to pinpoint the populations and areas which are outliers from the national averages

• a robust and intentional focus on the hardest to reach, particularly the poor in rural areas

• innovative technologies and approaches to bring sustainable sanitation solutions to poor communities at affordable prices

• increased attention to improving hygiene in homes, schools and healthcare facilities

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