Safe Water Supply Could Reduce Newborn Deaths


Somali refugee Sahro Asad Hassan, 19, holds her newborn infant Anzal Mohammed in the maternity ward in a health clinic at Dagahaley camp in Dadaab in Kenya’s northeastern province, June 8, 2009. REUTERS/FINBARR O’REILLY

Lack of clean water supply and unhygienic conditions in maternity clinics and hospitals account for nearly half a million infant deaths in developing countries annually, according to WaterAid.  The state of water, sanitation and hygiene services (WASH) in health care facilities in 54 low- to middle-income countries is alarming, as described in the World Health Organisation and United Nations’ Children Fund’s recent report.

Nearly 20 percent of newborn deaths in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are caused by complications from sepsis, which could be prevented by observance of hygienic practices in health clinics.  The WHO reports that in these regions, 38 percent do not have access to basic water services and supply. Poor sanitation was observed in 19 percent of these health facilities and 35 percent do not have water and soap for hand washing.  Evaluation was based on the simplest standards or requisites of a health care facility and the situation could be considered even worse.

WaterAid reported an actual problem raised by a Zambian midwife who works in a birthing place lacking safe water and hygiene supply. Consequently, a newborn who was just detached from its umbilical cord was cleansed with water that came from wells. This makes infants susceptible to infection and neonatal tetanus. Moreover, health workers are compelled to attend to other patients without having their hands washed or the delivery room disinfected.  The situation already endangers the lives of these infants during their first month after birth.

Global action is being called for to address this societal problem. On the upcoming World Water Day, WaterAid will launch its child health campaign called Healthy Start to raise awareness on the effects of safe water deficiency and lack of sanitation on babies born in maternity wards or clinics.  Specific recommendations such as integration of WASH in all local and national health programs were some of the actions emphasised.

To achieve this, the WHO highlights the need for concrete health plans in all levels and strengthening of existing national policies.  Funding, training health workers, and improving or maintaining WASH services are some of the general plans that can be coordinated with different governments and organisations.