The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us time and again how essential effective water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) management can be in preventing the spread of disease. When communities have access to safe and clean water, they’re better equipped to follow recommended public health tips and contain or prevent an outbreak of a virus.
Still, an estimated 2 billion people around the world are currently at risk of contracting COVID-19 due to limited access to effective handwashing.
And in low- and middle-income countries, where adequate facilities are often unavailable, these unsanitary conditions also create a breeding ground for other diseases to spread — diseases that have been around for much longer than COVID-19.
Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are diseases of poverty that affect more than 1.7 billion people across 149 countries.
Despite this — and the fact that a whopping 2.7 billion people lack access to sanitation around the world — NTDs have historically failed to receive much attention from the global community, which is precisely why they’re considered “neglected.”
Some of them, like soil-transmitted helminths and Guinea worm disease, spread through soil, food, or water that’s been contaminated by parasites. Others, like trachoma, are transmitted through flying insects and could be prevented with regular face washing and proper disposal of human waste.
Each year, NTD cases contribute to decreased school attendance, hunger, and poverty among thousands of children — especially girls who depend on unsafe shared public resources.
The good news is that these issues could be fixed by providing access to safe facilities and drinking water sources.
Improved sanitation could reduce cases of WASH-related NTDs by as much as 78% around the world, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).
Aside from leading to positive health outcomes, global WASH interventions could also help alleviate poverty and keep thousands of children in school each year.
But the connection between WASH and NTDs, although evident, has gone largely unaddressed by world leaders and decision-makers.
“The focus in the last decade has been to scale up treatments, in large part made possible through donations from pharmaceutical companies,” Dr. Claire Chaumont, measurement and evaluation program evidence director at the END Fund, told Global Citizen. “Despite progress made thus far, it does not allow communities to break the cycle of transmission of these parasites. Accelerating progress towards elimination goals will require better integration of treatment campaigns with WASH interventions.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently published a new framework to help world leaders achieve this level of integration on a global scale — but WASH still fails to make it to the top of policymakers’ list of priorities when it comes to fighting NTDs.
Some countries, like Nigeria, have recently committed to improving WASH conditions by putting an end to open defecation, marking a welcome step forward in the fight against water-borne diseases like diarrhea. Many organizations, like Water.org, a nonprofit co-founded by actor Matt Damon, are also working with families to finance solutions and improve WASH within the world’s most vulnerable communities.
But much more remains to be done, starting with substantial financial commitments from world leaders, at a time when the London Declaration on NTDs is coming to an end.
“Funding is standing in the way to an improved global WASH strategy,” April Davies, planning and performance manager for global impact at Water.org, told Global Citizen. “It will require $114 billion per year for universal access to safe water and sanitation by 2030. This is more than three times the amount that is currently invested.”
Chaumont echoed these concerns, adding that renewed financial commitments should go hand in hand with a WASH-sensitive global NTD eradication strategy.
“Ensuring that [NTDs] are high on the political agenda is a key first step to making sure that they are prioritized and addressed,” she said. “Appropriate financing is a second piece. And finally, adequate alignment with other sectors, such as WASH, will go a long way to leverage these investments towards ending these diseases.”
With just 0.6% of global health funding currently going to preventing NTDs, new commitments are desperately needed to safeguard the progress made towards their elimination. You can join us in calling on world leaders to renew the London Declaration and to mobilize new financial pledges of $1.5 billion to help accelerate progress towards by taking action here.