WASH and Its Impact on Health and Nutrition

hand washing

We continuously hear the message of handwashing, sanitizing, and having access to clean water. Some may have taken this message with the seriousness it deserves while others assumed it until Coronavirus happened. This season may not be the best but with every dark cloud, there is a silver lining. Haven’t we all noticed that the number of hospital visitations has drastically reduced? This is possible correlation that there is a greater need to maintain hygiene and sanitation.

Access to clean water, sanitation, and maintaining good hygiene practices helps prevents infectious diseases and improve nutritional status. Further, the Sustainable Development Goal number 6 and the 6 global nutrition targets which advocate for clean water, hygiene, and sanitation facilities for all. With all the efforts put in place, do we understand the impact that poor access to clean water, hygiene and sanitation facilities has on health and nutrition?

The health and nutrition implications brought about are:

  1. Diarrhoea is a common symptom in foodborne and waterborne illnesses.  It can result in malnutrition because of the nutrient loss experienced and in extreme cases can be fatal.  Diarrhoea is recorded to be the leading cause of death for children under 5 years globally. It accounts for up to 25% of stunting in children under 2 years
  2. Parasitic infections which can cause anaemia, reduce physical development and inhibit cognitive development
  3. Stunting and wasting.  Stunting is a global burden that affects about 160 million children below the age of 5.  It is attributed to repeated diarrheal cases and infection pathways that result in reduced bioavailability of the required nutrients

Improving nutrition requires far more than improving the quality of food.  Environmental contamination and diseases that emanate from dirty water and inadequate sanitation facilities ought to be addressed.  However, this issue should be addressed from a multisectoral approach as described by the UNICEF conceptual framework.

Reduction in diarrheal diseases through WASH interventions can prevent at least 860,000 child deaths a year caused by undernutrition (WHO, 2008).  Among the interventions in place to promote access to clean water, adequate sanitation facilities and good hygiene practices are:

  1. Advocacy on hand washing. Handwashing with soap can reduce the incidence of diarrhoea by 42-47%
  2. Community education.  To help reduce the cultural barrier as well as impart the community on the need for hygiene and sanitation.  Children can be educated on handwashing as well as menarche girls on menstrual hygiene
  3. Providing toilets and latrines that flush into a sewer or safe enclosure
  4. Providing home water treatments alternatives
  5. Low-cost solutions in improving water quality
  6. Rain and groundwater harvesting

Regardless of the interventions in place, Kenya is lagging. We have the third-largest number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa who drink from contaminated sources.  Also, an estimated 5 million people practice open defecation while only 14% have handwashing facilities with soap and water at home.  This leaves much to be desired in terms of policy implementation and community education.

Despite our shortcomings, we forge on.  The benefits we stand to gain more so in improving our health and nutrition status should motivate us to make this a personal matter.

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