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A matter of birth and death: Unsafe conditions still killing new mothers and newborns

A new WaterAid-authored article in PLOS Medicine, with leading health organisations including UNICEF, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the World Health Organization, reports that a lack of safe water, sanitation and hygiene in places where women give birth is having deadly consequence on new mums and their babies.

12 Dec 2014

WaterAid is leading nine organisations in a call to action in the medical journal PLOS Medicine, to protect the lives of new mothers and their babies by improving access to safe water, basic sanitation and hygiene in the places where women give birth.

The paper published in PLOS Medicine argues that despite other improvements in health care, new mothers and newborns are still dying because a reliable supply of safe water, good hygiene practice and adequate toilets are often not present.

An estimated 289,000 women died from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth in 2013 – that’s just about one woman every two minutes. Some 99% of those women lived in the developing world.

Researchers say better provision and monitoring of safe water, basic sanitation and hygiene can prevent infection, improve care and save lives.


Mary Musa talks about her personal positive experience of maternal health in Tanzania.

This flagship paper, From joint thinking to joint action: A call to action on improving water, sanitation and hygiene for maternal and newborn health, carries the names of 16 researchers, representing WaterAid, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the United Nations Population Fund, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the University of Aberdeen and The SoapBox Collaboration, BRAC and BRAC University, and Evidence for Action.

The research was funded by the Sanitation and Hygiene Applied Research for Equity (SHARE) Consortium, a five-year initiative funded by the UK Department for International Development and based at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

The report was launched at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine on 15 December in front of more than 100 sector professionals, academics and journalists.

The event was hosted by the report's co-author Oliver Cumming from SHARE Research Consortium, and featured keynote speeches from Jane Edmondson, Head of Human Development at DfID and Dr Maria Neira, Director of Public Health and the Environment at the World Health Organisation.

Yael Velleman, WaterAid’s senior policy analyst for sanitation and health and the paper’s lead author, said:

“We have known since Victorian times about the importance of clean water and good hygiene in birth. Yet today tens of thousands of mothers will be giving birth in places where doctors and midwives, if present, do not have access to clean water. The process of giving life should not mean unduly risking death.

“As governments work to help women and their babies survive childbirth, they must not neglect these basic building blocks of health care. In coming months, there is a chance to address these desperate needs in new Sustainable Development Goals now under discussion at the UN.”

Next year, as the UN finalises a new set of Sustainable Development Goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals, WaterAid and its partners are advocating for a strong goal on universal access to safe water, basic sanitation and hygiene education by 2030, and inclusion of these services in health-related goals.

WaterAid’s Christmas campaign, Child of Mine, is raising funds to help save children’s lives by providing access to safe water, basic sanitation and hygiene education. Without these, children are more vulnerable to the three main killers of undernutrition, pneumonia and diarrhoea. Nearly 1,400 children die each year of preventable diarrhoeal diseases linked to unsafe water and a lack of sanitation and hygiene.