Approximately 1.8 billion health workers and patients are at higher risk of COVID-19 and other diseases due to lack of basic water and sanitation services at health facilities, according to a report published Monday by the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The new report, titled "Fundamentals First: Universal Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Services in Health Care Facilities for Safe, Quality Care," found that 1 in 4 health care facilities globally has no water services, while 1 in 3 has no proper access to hand hygiene to help prevent infections. Meanwhile, 1 in 10 health care facilities doesn't have any sanitation services and 1 in 3 does not separate waste safely.
“Working in a health care facility without water, sanitation, and hygiene is akin to sending nurses and doctors to work without personal protective equipment,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom, director-general of the WHO, said in a news release about the report.
"Water supply, sanitation, and hygiene in health care facilities are fundamental to stopping COVID-19. But there are still major gaps to overcome, particularly in least-developed countries,” he added.
In the world’s least-developed countries, half of all health care facilities lack basic water services, 25% do not have hand hygiene at points of care, and 60% lack basic sanitation services.
While these kinds of disparities in health care facilities existed before COVID-19, the crisis has exacerbated them. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the WHO has recommended basic good hygiene as one of the most important ways to fight COVID-19, advising everyone to "regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water." Without access to water and sanitation services, health care workers and patients are without that first line of defense.
Experts are calling for action to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities after the coronavirus pandemic highlighted disparities between global health services.
“As we reimagine and shape a post-COVID world, making sure we are sending children and mothers to places of care equipped with adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene services is not merely something we can and should do," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. "It is an absolute must."
Access to hygiene and sanitation is especially important for vulnerable populations, such as pregnant mothers, newborns, and children. The WHO also found that better WASH facilities could save 1 million pregnant women and newborns’ lives and reduce stillbirths.
The WHO and UNICEF reported that it would cost roughly $1 per person to ensure that all of the least-developed countries have water services. It would take 20 cents per person to operate and maintain the services.
Investing in WASH infrastructure is fundamental to improving the quality of life and care around the world. According to the WHO and UNICEF, every $1 invested in hygiene and sanitation has a return of $1.50 as a result of health care-associated infections decreasing and health workers not having to search for handwashing facilities.