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Water, sanitation and hygiene are critical to effective health care

Thursday, 4 May 2017 11:02 GMT

Midwives Julianna Msoffe, Cheryl Stanley, Ester Manja and Delia Jepson walk through the labour ward at the start of a shift at Kiomboi Hospital, Iramba, Tanzania. WaterAid/Eliza Powell

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It has been just over a year since we returned from an unforgettable trip to Tanzania, to visit a busy referral hospital in the northern community of Kiomboi. What we saw and experienced there will stay with us forever.

The Kiomboi hospital was at the centre of WaterAid’s Deliver Life campaign, supported by a match-funding arrangement through the Department for International Development using UK aid from the British people, which aimed to raise money to help hospitals and clinics in the developing world trying to function without proper access to water, soap or decent working toilets.

As midwives at Liverpool Women’s Hospital, we’ve seen just about every childbirth scenario there is. But working alongside midwives who could not take running water for granted was a life-changing experience, making our experiences of elbow taps and a constant supply of wrapped sterile instruments seem luxurious by comparison.

We were truly shocked by some of the things we saw. Watching families draw water from a dirty, muddy pond outside the hospital grounds to wash the new mums’ clothing and babies’ swaddling cloths was just one example. They were trying to do their best for the new mum and her tiny baby– but the dirty water just contributed to the risk of infection, no matter how hard they scrubbed.

During our trip we also met a mother who very nearly lost her tiny baby to sepsis, when his umbilical cord stump became infected. His illness might have been prevented if the tap had worked and his aunt had not had to wash his cloths in water from a muddy pond.

Midwives everywhere face challenges and use creativity and skill to overcome them. For the midwives at Kiomboi, this meant storing water in teapots for handwashing, and in buckets and tanks dotted throughout the labour and delivery wards. They tried to save lives by saving every drop of water, which came from the taps for just one hour each day.

Happily, WaterAid’s efforts have transformed Kiomboi hospital and the work and spirit of its incredible midwives. These changes have unquestionably saved lives.

While in Kiomboi we helped deliver a son to 33-year-old Elizabeth Kitundu. It was her fourth child and unlike with her previous pregnancies, this time she gave birth in a hospital with a regular supply of clean water. After the birth, I was able to hand her a glass of water – a gesture that is second-nature in the UK but until that week was not always possible in Kiomboi.

After that joy of helping to bring Ezekali into the world, we had the honour of accompanying Elizabeth home. There we realised that whilst bringing water to Kiomboi hospital had provided that little boy with a healthy start to life, the family fetched their water from a hole in a river bed which would again put him at risk of infection. So there is no room for complacency in making sure that every child has access to clean water from their moment of birth through the rest of their life.

One in five babies who die in their first month in the developing world succumb to sepsis or other infection caused by dirty water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene. These deaths are preventable with the basics of good health: water, sanitation and good hygiene.

We saw in action – the difference water, sanitation and hygiene made to the midwives, and to the mothers and their babies. Every baby everywhere deserves to have a fair chance to grow up and reach his or her potential.

On 5 May, International Day of the Midwife, WaterAid’s Healthy Start campaign will gather midwives and other healthcare professionals from around the world in a virtual conference on how to ensure more hospitals and clinics around the world are given access to clean water, good sanitation and good hygiene. To hear from expert speakers on the policies and interventions needed for progress, please register at http://bit.ly/hswebinar17 .