Highlighting water, sanitation and hygiene on Universal Health Coverage Day

4 min read
Image: WaterAid/Poulomi Basu

Universal Health Coverage is an important goal, but what’s it got to do with water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)? Our Global Campaigns Manager Ross Bailey explains why WaterAid will be celebrating Universal Health Coverage Day on 12 December.

There are many important days still to come in December, but a date WaterAid wants everyone to know about is the 12th. 12 December marks the international day for Universal Health Coverage (UHC), which this year will be celebrated for the third time. For anyone interested in public health, it’s like Christmas come early!

UHC is an issue rising up the global agenda. There is increasing recognition across sectors that realising the global community's ambition of health and wellbeing for all will need a significant political commitment from every country. Taking a day out of the year to celebrate how UHC has helped change lives is a small but valuable step forward.

We’ll be celebrating UHC through supporting an Action for Global Health event and communicating with our supporters across governments, business and civil society. We believe UHC is critical because it fits so closely with our mission of achieving water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) access for all. We know from our work that where those making efforts to improve health recognise the importance of environmental determinants like WASH, we see dramatic gains in a population’s health outcomes. For those of us living in high-income countries it’s inconceivable for tap water quality to not be a public health responsibility, but for many countries this is far from the case.

More to UHC than medicine

Despite some progress, UHC is still too often viewed through a narrow, ‘medicalised’ view of health, with the broader social and environmental determinants neglected in debate. Yet the contribution of these underlying determinants cannot be shown more clearly than through the effects improvements in WASH have on health outcomes.

Delivering successful UHC means we need to ensure cross-sector dialogue and action between the diverse actors and ministries responsible for improving public health. No single organisation, body, or individual can alone deliver improvements to a population’s health.

There is no more glaring an example of failure to deliver quality UHC than that of healthcare facilities in low-income and middle-income countries. The statistics are devastating to read. A major WHO and UNICEF survey in 2015 reported that 38% of healthcare facilities surveyed did not have access to a basic water source, and 35% lacked the materials necessary for people to wash their hands effectively. When healthcare workers can’t keep facilities clean and prevent infections, their ability to deliver safe, effective, and dignified care is undermined.

Our short film below, shot in Tanzania and the UK, shows the difference that basic WASH can make when integrated into the delivery of health services:

Three key elements

In recent years, WaterAid has been increasing our work on the link between WASH and health outcomes. Focusing on the elements related to healthcare facilities, three key areas underpin this work.

At a national level, we are learning what helps a healthcare facility develop and sustain access to basic services such as WASH. For some practical reflections on what this look like, my colleague Channa’s blog about her experience in Cambodia is an excellent place to start. Reading about Channa’s efforts should remind us that rolling out UHC will be done country by country, ‘inch by inch’, and that improving access on one front mutually supports efforts elsewhere.

At an international level, we are working to support WHO and UNICEF to raise awareness, foster commitment, and work with partners to develop and implement a global action plan on WASH in healthcare facilities. This plan includes several components, ranging from ensuring sufficient financing and trained staff to manage WASH in healthcare facilities, to harmonising and expanding monitoring. We encourage everyone to read more about the plan here.

We are also calling on healthcare professionals to join our global campaign and to talk to their governments about the importance of safe, reliable access to WASH in all health facilities around the world. We’re delighted do this in partnership with the Commonwealth Federation of Nurses and Midwives, Healthcare Information for All, and the International Confederation of Nurses and Midwives. For more information, to sign our petition and join the campaign, please go here.

Health for all is a visionary goal. UHC day helps us to take pause in a busy year and focus attention on what’s needed to achieve this expansion. WaterAid is very pleased to celebrate the day and calls on all individuals interested in public health, whether they are a water engineer or a midwife, to ensure we deliver coverage expansion in parallel.

Put simply, UHC day reminds us that only by achieving WASH for all can we realise the vision of health for all.

Ross Bailey tweets as @rossb82