No one should have to suffer from diseases that were eliminated in the UK 150 years ago

Posted On: 
25th January 2019

Figures from the OECD suggest that UK aid commitments to water, sanitation and hygiene are falling – by as much as 67% from 2016 to 2017. This is an alarming trend which, put simply, threatens global health, says Savio Carvalho, Global Campaign Director, WaterAid.

No one should have to suffer from diseases that were eliminated in the UK 150 years ago. No one should have to give birth in an unsafe and dirty healthcare facility, with those first joyful moments with a new-born darkened by fear of infection transmitted by used gloves or a dirty bed, says Savio Carvalho, Global Campaign Director, Water Aid.
Credit: 
WaterAid/ Lis Parham

Amid the Brexit headlines it’s easy to forget that life still goes on, and life-threatening crises still exist, in other parts of the world.

While politicians in this country focus inward, brave health workers around the world are fighting impossible battles against infections and diseases which are increasingly resistant to the drugs available to treat them. We are running out of drugs to treat waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera, as well as the infections which newborn babies are most likely to contract and die from the simple act of being born in a place that isn’t clean – bacteria like Klebsiella and E. coli.

None of these would even be an issue if every single one of those healthcare facilities and every single one of those communities had what we take for granted every day: safe water that runs from our taps when we need it, safe and reliable sewerage systems and rigorous hospital hygiene.

Now the exciting news: There is action happening to set this right. In Geneva this week, a selected group of health ministers and policymakers from around the world are meeting to set out what will constitute international health priorities over the coming year, to better address the global health crises which claim lives even as you read these words. Their decisions will set the agenda for the World Health Assembly in May, where the UK has an important voice.

Among the proposals before the Executive Board of the World Health Organization are a resolution for water, sanitation and hygiene in all healthcare facilities, as essential to good healthcare. It is so desperately needed.

In a recent visit to Malawi, a WaterAid researcher heard first-hand what impact poor water, sanitation and hygiene has on disease prevention.

“We have seen an increase in patients returning with the same illness after being given antibiotics,” said Rhodney Chaula, senior clinical officer at Kasunga District Hospital. “We have seen deaths when a p atient doesn’t respond to antibiotics, and doesn’t make it. For this, typhoid is a big one. We don’t have an exact number of deaths, but there have been more people returning and not responding to treatment, and an increase in deaths.”  

This struggle is set amid daunting odds: In Malawi, 574 women out of every 100,000 dies during or immediately after childbirth; in the UK, that number is just 9. An estimated 29 babies out of every 1,000 births will not survive their first month.

As rates of resistant infections rise, we know that even if mothers and babies make it back to the health centre to be prescribed antibiotics, they still may not survive.

UK aid is working to change this story: in Malawi, where studies in some regions have found up to 97% of typhoid cases have become resistant to multiple drugs due in part to the use and misuse of antibiotics, WaterAid’s Deliver Life project is bringing water, sanitation and hygiene to 16 healthcare facilities – funded by UK aid from the generosity of the British people.

But this situation is not limited to Malawi. No one should have to suffer from diseases that were eliminated in the UK 150 years ago. No one should have to give birth in an unsafe and dirty healthcare facility, with those first joyful moments with a new-born darkened by fear of infection transmitted by used gloves or a dirty bed.

Yet figures from the OECD suggest that UK aid commitments to water, sanitation and hygiene are falling – by as much as 67% from 2016 to 2017. This is an alarming trend which, put simply, threatens global health.     

The UK has already acknowledged that superbugs pose as great a threat to humanity as climate change. At this critical moment, the UK government has a contribution to make to change this deplorable situation, by continuing its global leadership in foreign aid, and giving priority to water, sanitation and hygiene programmes in hospitals, schools and communities.

Water and sanitation are human rights. We simply cannot expect healthcare workers without adequate water, sanitation and hygiene to provide health services that will keep patients safe. And in today’s globalised world, a drug-resistant infection in one part of the world will soon travel much closer to home. This is an issue that concerns us all.