It’s time all babies had a Healthy Start

Fleur Anderson, WaterAid’s Global Head of Campaigns, explains why safe water, toilets and good hygiene are a matter of life or death for newborn babies in the world’s poorest communities.


17 Mar 2015 | UK

I've had four children – three born in hospital and one at home (on purpose!).

Each time I didn't have to worry about whether there would be clean water available to keep me and my baby clean. Once I got to the hospital my husband was never asked if we had brought our own water.

I didn't have to think about whether the delivery bed had been cleaned since the last new mother was there. And I didn't need to inspect the scissors used for cutting the umbilical cord – I just trusted they were clean and wouldn't infect my baby.

Shocking figures

In many developing countries, clean water and hygienic conditions in hospitals and birthing clinics are seen as 'nice to have' rather than essential for staff, mothers and babies.

Sepsis is the cause of 18-20% of neo-natal deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. This invasive infection is normally caused by bacteria, and clean water, sanitation and hygienic practices can dramatically reduce the risk. Half a million babies die each year in their first month of life because they have been born into unhygienic conditions.

Before now, it was unknown how many clinics had clean water and safe sanitation, but this week new World Health Organization and UNICEF research shows us the true picture for the first time.

Shockingly, it reveals that 38% of hospitals and clinics in 54 low and middle-income countries do not have access to any water source. And of the healthcare facilities that have some water access, only half of those have reliable or safe supplies.

What's more, 19% do not have any toilet facilities and over a third (35%) of hospitals and clinics lack anywhere for staff or patients to wash their hands with soap.

Alarming as these figures are, even if hospitals and clinics are defined as having access to water, the supply may be up to half a kilometre away from the facility, rather than piped into the premises. So although we now know a lot more – the situation is even worse than these statistics show.

Registered Nurse Esther Mongi examines 19-year-old Rose Vincent, nine-months pregnant with her first child, at Mlali Health Centre, Tanzania.
Photo: WaterAid/ Eliza Deacon

A new campaign

This World Water Day, we are launching a new report Healthy Start: the first month of life. It reveals the devastating impact of a lack of safe water and sanitation on newborn babies in developing countries, and the impact this has on staff.

As Esther Mongi, a midwife at the Mlali Health Centre in Tanzania, says, "Previously when the health centre had no water we would advise relatives to bring three jerry cans of water when a mother came for delivery, but this was not clean and safe water. We felt bad and sometimes we felt demoralised because how can you work in a health facility without enough water?"

Healthy Start is also the name of WaterAid’s new four-year child health campaign. Together with healthcare professionals, we will be drawing attention to the need for healthcare policies to include safe water, sanitation and hygiene as essential for improving child health, and calling for action.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are close to being finalised, and this new research underlines the need for a water and sanitation goal, so that child health goals can be achieved.

We know that having safe water, sanitation and hygiene will save lives. We know that this is what healthcare professionals want. And we know that it is achievable if it is given priority by national and local governments.

Find out how we're getting taps and toilets to the top of the global agenda in 2015 >