Lack of water in clinics poses global health risk

4 Apr 19

The lack of basic water facilities in one in four medical centres poses grave risks to the health of more than two billion people globally.

The United Nations is appealing to countries to do more to prevent the transmission of treatable infections that can turn deadly if not washed or flushed away. 

In a groundbreaking report it has found that one in five health care facilities globally has no toilet or latrine – a problem that affects at least 1.5 billion people.

“The one thing that you need to do is wash your hands, whatever bug it is, whatever resistance it has,” said Dr Bruce Gordon, coordinator of work by the World Health Organization (WHO) on water and sanitation.

“It’s not a matter or diarrhoeal disease, it’s a matter of any opportunistic infection that can just happily live on skin, or get in cuts, and get inside your body and give people sepsis … We need to break transmission with handwashing.” 

In the first report of its kind, the WHO and UN Children’s Fund UNICEF noted that basic water services are available in just over half of all medical facilities in the world’s least developed countries (LDCs).

The WASH (Water sanitation hygiene) in Health Care Facilities report says this puts mothers and newborn babies at particular risk, because it is estimated that one in five births globally takes place in the world’s 47 poorest nations.

Every year, 17 million women in these countries give birth in health centres with inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene supplies. 

Tom Slaymaker, UNICEF’s Senior Statistics and Monitoring Specialist for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene said communities in rural areas are “most likely to miss out” on decent health care facilities in comparison with people in towns.

He said: “People are relying on health care facilities without any kind of improved toilet. Sick people shed a lot more pathogens in their faeces and without toilets, staff, patients – this includes mothers and babies – are at a much greater risk of disease caused and spread by human waste.” 

While one in 10 hospitals globally lacks a toilet, the figure rises to one in five for smaller health facilities, Slaymaker added.

  • Gavin O'Toole, expert on Latin America
    Gavin O'Toole

    A freelance journalist. He has written six books about Latin America and taught the politics of the region at Queen Mary, University of London.

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