Superbugs flourish as a quarter of health facilities lack basic water services worldwide

A patient lies on a bed in a hospital ward  - Tom Greenwood/WaterAid
A patient lies on a bed in a hospital ward - Tom Greenwood/WaterAid

One in four healthcare facilities around the world lack even basic access to water services, exacerbating the spread of drug resistant superbugs, a major report has warned.

In the first comprehensive review of access to water, sanitation and hygiene services (WASH) in healthcare centres, Unicef and the World Health Organization found that roughly two billion people use health facilities lacking basic water services globally – while almost 900 million people use centres with no water services at all.

The report, published on Wednesday, added that one in five healthcare facilities do not have toilets – impacting 1.5 billion people.

“Water, sanitation and hygiene services in health facilities are the most basic requirements of infection prevention and control, and of quality care,” said António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General.

“They are fundamental to respecting the dignity and human rights of every person who seeks health care and of health workers themselves,” he added.

Poor sanitary conditions have been directly linked to rising rates of so-called superbugs, which develop when bacteria and other pathogens become resistant to antibiotics.

The WHO has listed antimicrobial resistance as one of its top threats to global health, and current estimates suggest that nearly 10 million people a year will die from untreatable superbugs by 2050 – a dramatic increase from the 700,000 deaths linked to antibiotic resistance in 2014.

In clinics without adequate WASH facilities this is common, as antibiotics prevent and treat infectious which could have been avoided with better hygiene practices.

Welcoming the report, WaterAid said the world needed to take note of the “often deplorable” conditions in health centres.

“This data reveals the often deplorable conditions in which health professionals around the world are trying to deliver good care, and which patients must endure when they seek medical help,” said Helen Hamilton, senior policy analyst on health and hygiene at WaterAid.

“The battle to save lives, and to slow the rise of deadly superbugs which threaten us all, cannot be won as long as these dedicated frontline staff are denied what we consider the fundamentals of health care," she said.

Inadequate sanitation conditions and poor hygiene practices can also have a devastating effect during childbirth.

Each year, more than a million mothers or babies die due to unclean births, while infections account for one quarter of neonatal deaths and one tenth of maternal mortality.

“Imagine giving birth or taking your sick child to a health centre with no safe water, toilets or hand washing facilities,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “That’s the reality for millions of people every day. No one should have to do that, and no health worker should have to provide care in those circumstances.”

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