Poor hygiene, toilet habits cost thousands of lives in Asia: WHO

Poor hygiene, toilet habits cost thousands of lives in Asia: WHO


Seoul: Anemia, nutrition and lack of primary healthcare have been significant contributors to the mounting rate of infections and outbreak of disease, in many cases leading to the death of the ailing person. Now, it seems even poor hygiene, sanitation and personal habits could be adding to the woes of the poor by making them more sick and weak.

A senior UN health official said Thursday that better sanitation and hygiene could save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives a year, at a cost equal to what Europe ironically spends on ice cream annually.

Shigeru Omi, World Health Organization director for the Western Pacific, said 1.8 million worldwide die every year from diarrhoeal diseases mainly attributable to unsafe water supplies, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene, of which two third live in Asia, with more than half in China and India alone.

He was speaking at the launch of the World Toilet Association, a South Korea-based NGO aimed at helping the world’s 2.6 billion people who live without toilets.

Asia, worst affected

Majority of these deaths occur in Asia, with 90% of them being children under five years of age. Diarrhoea continues to be the second leading cause of childhood death in developing countries, next to malnutrition.

While there have been some improvements in the nutritional status of young children in several states, nutritional deficiencies are still widespread. Most striking has been the increase in wasting, or weight for height, among children under age 3 years. India’s National Family Health Survey-3 found that 23% of children were wasted, up from 20% seven years earlier. And prevalence of anemia was as high as 70% in children aged 6-59 months.

Studies have shown that better sanitation can reduce diarrhoeal deaths by up to 32% and hygiene campaigns such as promoting hand-washing can reduce such deaths by up to 45%, he said.

Low cost interventions like ‘hand-washing’ can save lives

“Just imagine the number of children whose lives could be saved through simple low-cost interventions in sanitation and hygiene," he said.

Many illnesses are related to unsafe water and poor sanitation and hygiene (intestinal worm infections). Currently, about 133 million people worldwide suffer high-intensity worm infections which often lead to cognitive impairment, dysentery or anaemia, Omi said.

UN to spend $10 bn p.a, less than 1% of world military spending (2005)

The UN has set a goal of helping at least half of the 2.6 billion people lacking proper toilets by 2015 at an estimated cost of $10 billion worldwide per year.

The annual cost, Omi said, is less than 1% of world military spending in 2005. “It is one third of the estimated global spending on bottled water. 10 billion is about as much as Europeans spend on ice cream each year."

A recent report found that investment in water and sanitation in East Asia would return economic gains of some six dollars for every dollar invested, he said.

Providing everyone in East Asia with safe water and basic sanitation would also reduce health care costs by $8 billion per year, and would avert costs of $40 billion in the form of time lost fetching water from afar.

S Korean campaigner sets up World Toilet Association

The World Toilet Association was launched by South Korean campaigner Sim Jae-Duck, who takes the subject so seriously he has even built a $1.6 million toilet-shaped house to promote his campaign.

Its inaugural meeting drew 1,300 people from more than 60 countries including health officials and sanitation industry representatives.

A draft “Seoul Declaration" calls for international campaigns to provide proper sanitation, tackle water pollution and mount public education campaigns.

Investing in young girls’ health ensures family/community’s health

Ann M. Veneman, executive director of UNICEF, said in a video message that the impact of poor sanitation extends beyond health. “Where schools do not provide proper toilets for children, particularly for girls, their educational prospects suffer.

“Clean, safe and dignified toilet and hand-washing facilities in schools help ensure that girls get the education they need and deserve," she said. “When girls get an education, the whole community benefits."

Additional inputs by Taru Bahl/ livemint.com