Listen up Canada, WASH Inclusion is Critical for Improved Maternal Newborn Child Health!

Line at Water Source in Ethiopia

Line-up at a water source in Ethiopia

The current Ebola Epidemic, SARS a few years ago, regular outbreaks of Cholera and the persistent scourge of Diarrhea remind us that global health is an urgent problem that needs our attention. What I also know to be true is that any progress we make will be limited, until we learn to start with the building blocks of a health society –  access to clean Water+Sanitation+Hygiene Education (WASH). Our foundation is weak, and this comes back again and again to
haunt us.

Today, we still have

  • 800 Million people on our planet without access to clean water.
  • 2.5 Billion without access to a functional toilet.
  • 1.2 Billion people that defecate in the open. Yes, 1.2 Billion people going every day, in open spaces, bushes, beaches, railway tracks, on the side of the road, behind school buildings, Then, all this exposed fecal matter, full of germs, finds its way back into our lives – spreading sickness, diarrhea, and even death.

Water, Sanitation, and Basic hygiene education is so rudimentary to health. Many say WASH needs to be a basic human right. Yet, almost 35% of our world is without it.

Canada is seen as a world leader in promoting Maternal Newborn Child health (MNCH). Prime Minster Harper has made it Canada’s #1 development priority and announced an additional C$3.5 Billion in new money dedicated to MNCH from 2015 to 2020. It is great to see the government and the CAN-MNCH-coalition working closely in what is a fabulous new model for international development. The world is now waiting to see the results and the impact Canada will have on MNCH.

What are the linkages between MNCH and WASH?

  • 760,000 children die each year from diarrheal disease. There are an estimated 1.7 Billion cases of diarrhea each year. Diarrhea makes kids more vulnerable to malnutrition, malaria and pneumonia.  The only way to prevent diarrhea is through better access to water and sanitation services, and through improved hygiene practices, especially hand-washing with soap.
  • Studies show that women in households with poor sanitation and lack of water have a significantly higher risk of maternal mortality and morbidity. Hauling water from distant sources is linked to poor weight gain during pregnancy, fecal contamination of water and poor personal hygiene is a major factor to high levels of obstetric fistula, and hookworm infestations, linked to anemia and hemorrhage.
  • Need for good hygiene in midwifery is well recorded.  A strong link exists between birth attendants’ hand-washing practices and neonatal survival rates.
  • Fewer than half of hospitals and health centers in the developing world have functional water and sanitation systems.
  • Adolescent girls miss school for days and eventually drop out when there are no toilets, or privacy or thought given to how they can manage their menstrual cycles. Less than 50% of schools in the developing world have functional toilets.
  • Young girls have a daily fear, or worse still suffer violence and rape as they leave their homes to find a quiet place for the daily business of defecation
  • Basic hygiene education – such as washing hands before cooking/eating and after defecating has a huge effect on health! Sadly, this education is missing for young children, and adolescent girls in school curricula. Or for new mothers in health care centers

The writing is on the wall – if we do not take care of foundational aspects that prevent disease, all the progress we make cannot be sustainable. WASH has proven to be one of the most cost effective interventions in the developing world. Every dollar spent on WASH leads to almost 8 dollars in economic benefit. It is the basis of providing dignity and a means of increasing gender equality.

There is plenty of data showing the impact WASH has on MNCH results. But unfortunately, there has not been a lot of coordination between CAN-MNCH and the Canadian WASH Sector.  There needs to be better integration of WASH into all aspects of MNCH whether it is

  • Healthcare systems
  • Health Service Delivery
  • Healthy Communities and Schools

As we start 2015,  I urge the Canadian government, foundations, the CAN-MNCH coalition and our partners to integrate WASH into their existing agendas and frameworks for health. I urge you to invite a WASH specialist to the table when having discussions on policy or implementation related to MNCH. If everyone working on the big push on MNCH in Canada, begins to think about WASH integration, I am confident we will see positive and long lasting changes in Maternal, Newborn, Child Heath in 2015 and beyond!

Best wishes for the holidays and a wonderful 2015 to all!

Lotika

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