Nearly half a million babies die in their first month of life each year because they are born into unhygienic conditions, a new WaterAid briefing reveals today.

The briefing marks the launch of Healthy Start, a new WaterAid campaign focusing on the devastating impact of a lack of safe water and sanitation on children.

For one in five babies who die during their first month of life in the developing world, simply being washed in clean water and cared for in a clean environment by people who had washed their hands could have prevented their untimely deaths. In Mali, for instance, one woman in every 17 will lose a baby to infection during her lifetime compared to one in 2,958 in the US.

WaterAid’s Healthy Start: the first month of life (PDF, 1.5MB) briefing is released on the same day that a World Health Organization report reveals that nearly half of hospitals and clinics in Africa do not have access to clean water. And of the 58% of healthcare facilities that do have access, only half are able to count on a safe and reliable supply of clean water.

The World Health Organization report, Water, sanitation and hygiene in health care facilities: status in low and middle income countries and way forward, indicates that across 18 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, access to water in healthcare facilities is as low as 20% - as is the case in Mali. It is the first survey of its kind and shows that in the 54 developing countries studied 38% of healthcare facilities do not have clean water and 19% do not have safe toilets. Over one-third (35%) of hospitals and clinics did not have anywhere for staff or patients to wash their hands with soap.                      

The figures are all the more disturbing because healthcare facilities with water supply as far away as one-third of a mile are defined as having access to clean water. Additionally there is limited data as to whether toilets in healthcare facilities are in working order and can be used by both staff and patients.

These unacceptable conditions in healthcare facilities are of critical  importance for preventing the deaths of women and newborn babies. In Healthy Start: the first month of life, WaterAid sets out the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene for the prevention of newborn death from sepsis, tetanus and other infections strongly linked to unhygienic birth conditions, which claim nearly half a million newborn lives every year. 

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

The WaterAid briefing highlights the risks to babies of healthcare facilities that do not offer a hygienic birth environment. It sets out what is needed to support health agencies, ministries and donor governments to put cleanliness at the heart of healthcare by ensuring that every healthcare facility has safe running water, safe toilets and sinks with running water and soap available to staff and patients.

The briefing marks the start of Healthy Start, WaterAid’s four-year campaign which focuses on the devastating impact of the lack of safe water and sanitation, and poor hygiene practices, on the health of children.  

Sarina Prabasi, WaterAid America’s Chief Executive Officer said: 

Mothers everywhere deserve to give birth in a safe environment.  Clean water is essential for this safe environment, and can help give vulnerable newborn babies a healthy start in life. 
"We all know the links between dirty hands, dirty water and infant mortality. And still, one in five newborn deaths in the developing world is  due to a lack of safe water, sanitation and clean hands. 

We need to strengthen water, sanitation and hygiene within health services in developing countries so that the basic foundations of health are a given and everyone, everywhere has a healthy start in life.”

The United Nations is currently deciding on the Sustainable Development Goals, which will be successors to the Millennium Development Goals.  WaterAid is calling for a dedicated goal to deliver water and sanitation to everyone, everywhere by 2030, including in all healthcare facilities.