By Anupama Tantri
The magnitude of the problem is significant…
783 million people do not have access to safe water.
2.5 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation.
1.5 billion people are infected with a neglected tropical disease (NTD), including more than 500 million children.
…and it doesn’t take much to recognize that inadequate water supply, limited access to sanitation facilities and poor hygiene are major contributing factors to the spread of diseases such as NTDs. We know that in addition to drugs to treat and control NTDs, improvements to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) can help prevent re-infection and contribute to lasting health, education and economic improvements.
The challenge is figuring out how to reach communities and enable these WASH improvements and NTD control activities. NTDs are considered diseases of neglected people because they affect the most marginalized, hard-to-reach communities. NTDs prevent children from growing and learning and they reduce adults’ economic productivity and ability to care for their families. NTDs perpetuate poverty. These same communities don’t have access to water or sanitation, and women frequently walk many miles and spend several hours a day carrying 40 pounds of water on their heads just to supply the most basic needs for their households.
Earlier this month in Seattle, Emory’s Center for Global Safe Water, Children Without Worms and the International Trachoma Initiative, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, convened a small group of experts and practitioners working in the areas of WASH and NTDs to identify practical, concrete steps to help these sectors work together and ensure that efforts and resources reach these marginalized, neglected communities. This meeting was an important step in an ongoing dialogue to strengthen the synergies between these two sectors.
One first step that both sectors can take is to reach the same communities and encourage coordination across projects. Without WASH improvements, communities, particularly children will continue to get re-infected despite annual or biannual treatment against NTDs. Without NTD treatment and control, new, improved WASH facilities risk becoming contaminated and contributing to the persistence of NTDs. Therefore, WASH projects should prioritize communities and sites with NTDs, and NTDs programs should advocate for comprehensive programs that include WASH as a key strategy for NTD control and elimination.
Many school-based programs are already doing this, and these programs are a model for cross-sector and cross-agency coordination and collaboration. There are an increasing number of community-based programs as well, and several of these are highlighted in this recent brief developed by WaterAid and other partners, WASH: The silent weapon against NTDs. The Inter-American Development Bank, in partnership with local health authorities, PAHO and Global Network, is also taking a lead in working across ministries and health and water sectors that traditionally work in silos in order to develop a more holistic strategy to control NTDs. More information about their work can be found on their site: http://www.neglecteddiseases.net/.
The solutions are out there. We just need work together to end the neglect.