Nature and Biodiversity

Why clean water and sanitation are key to tackling tropical diseases

Magdalena Mis
Production Editor, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Water, sanitation and hygiene are part of a new World Health Organisation strategy to fight neglected tropical diseases which afflict more than 1.5 billion people, the WHO said.

Those suffering from the 17 diseases, such as intestinal worms, river blindness, leprosy and sleeping sickness include many of the poorest people in the world.

“If we put in place universal access to safe water and sanitation and hygiene then the neglected tropical diseases in most cases will completely disappear or be put under control,” Maria Neira, head of public health at WHO, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Including water and sanitation in local and national programmes would reduce infections, improve treatment, and reduce the discrimination and stigma that people disfigured by diseases often face, the WHO said.

“Those terrible diseases require hygiene and sanitation and we hope that this contribution will add to our argument that access to safe water and sanitation is one of the most important determinants of our health,” Neira said at the launch of the initiative at a global water conference in Stockholm.

Neglected tropical diseases thrive where people live in extreme poverty with poor sanitation and little access to healthcare – usually in remote rural areas, urban slums or conflict zones.

“Water and sanitation require resources that exceed what WHO can generate for neglected tropical diseases, so we want to make sure that interventions both in public health and water and sanitation reach the poorest as a matter of priority,” Dirk Engels, director of the Department of Neglected Tropical Diseases at the WHO, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The new strategy was announced just weeks before a new set of development objectives – known as the Sustainable Development Goals – is due to be adopted at a U.N. summit in September.

The new goals include eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 and providing universal access to water and sanitation.

More than 660 million people around the world live without access to clean water, and 2.4 billion do not have access to proper sanitation, according to UNICEF and the WHO.

WaterAid, an international charity which has been working with communities affected by neglected tropical diseases, gave the example of leprosy, saying that nearly 5,000 new cases are reported each year in Ethiopia.

“Once you have the severe form of a disease like leprosy, you pretty much have it for life and the people affected often suffer from exclusion,” Yael Velleman, WaterAid senior policy analyst on sanitation and health, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The stigma associated with those diseases mean that people who have them may not be allowed to use the same washrooms as family members and may be unable to access water, because if they have a disability it is harder for them to carry water, Velleman said.

“It’s not just about controlling a disease, it’s making sure that the poorest of the poor and the most marginalised have access to these basic services,” she said.

The new strategy was launched as a partnership between the WHO, WaterAid and other charities.

This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Magdalena Mis is a Thomson Reuters Foundation correspondent, based in London. 

Image: A girl looks at water from the Nile flowing from a pump in the Manshiyet Nasser shantytown in eastern Cairo. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

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