Why a toilet is a great birthday present

I just celebrated another happy birthday. I was a lucky kid, born in an American hospital with all the trained staff and technologies available at that time. Which is why a headline on my birthday struck me as a pretty wonderful present, “Africa may soon be polio-free.”

Polio seems like a distant plague to us, but the last known case of polio in the U.S. was only in 1979. The same year we watched the Iran hostage crisis unfold, ESPN was launched, and McDonald’s introduced its Happy Meal. 

{mosads}The polio virus continues to pop up around the world. Experts see just a few hundred actual cases each year, but for every known case, it is estimated there are some 200 asymptomatic people carrying the virus. It’s why, even here in the U.S., we must continue to vaccinate all children. Travel in the developing world today and you see crippled people, from old women to young boys, pathetically pulling themselves along by their hands, sometimes stuffing them into makeshift “shoes,” so that they can drag their twisted, useless limbs behind them. I’ve seen it. But it’s hard to look because it is so shocking.

As recently as 2013 the virus was found in sewage in Israel, having come by way of Pakistan, one of three countries in which the virus remains endemic. But that number may soon be down to two. Nigeria, presuming it makes it through this month with no new cases, will have gone a full year with not one new polio case and will be declared polio free. Like Pakistan and Afghanistan, Nigeria presented a particular set of vaccination challenges because religious leaders are known to interfere with vaccination campaigns. Some religious leaders even believed vaccination efforts were a Western conspiracy to sterilize Muslim children, and in 2013, gunmen killed nine polio immunization workers during a vaccination drive.

But by educating parents about polio, and sometimes seeing the devastation of polio firsthand, Nigerian parents are on board and vaccinating polio into extinction. The U.S. and global work to eradicate polio is remarkable. Since 1988, over 10 million fewer children are paralyzed who otherwise would be. Which is one more reason I may be a little bit obsessed with the single invention that has saved more lives than any other. You probably think I’m referring to the polio vaccine, but I’m not.

I’m talking about the toilet.

Because polio is spread through human waste, not having proper sanitation and clean water for good hygiene is a big problem. Polio, along with some 50, mostly preventable, water-related diseases and illnesses, are due to the lack of access to safe water, hygiene, and the dignity of sanitation. They hit children under 5 the hardest, cruelly stunting and destroying young lives.

But there is good news.

Access to improved drinking water sources has been a major achievement for the international community. The world came together, setting — and committing to — a series of tangible global goals called the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs. It turns out:  global goals work.

The goal to double the number of people around the world who have access to safe water was met five years ahead of schedule. With some 2.6 billion people having gained access since 1990, 91 percent of the world’s population now has improved – and that can mean life-saving — drinking water. In sub-Saharan Africa, that’s an average of 47,000 people per day, every day, for 25 years. 427 million people.

It’s been a global effort, but it is the U.S. government that has the cross border convening powers and influence that have helped bring about this kind of global success.

But we’re not there yet. 663 million people still get their water from unsafe sources and it remains a huge burden for women who much spend hours every day walking to ponds and streams to fetch water that will make their children sick. They have no choice. Still, these global goals have brought the world’s population much closer to safe water for all.

In contrast, only 68 percent of the world’s population has improved sanitation. That, according to a recently-released report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, means that worldwide, 1 in 3 people, or 2.4 billion, are still without sanitation facilities.

More children die from diarrhea and pneumonia, both related to poor sanitation, than AIDS/malaria/TB combined. So it should be no surprise that WHO and UNICEF warn that this lack of progress on sanitation threatens to undermine the child survival and health gains from drinking water and many other improvements.

WHO and UNICEF say this uneven progress must be a learning moment as the world comes together to develop the next set of guiding global goals for 2015-2030. The Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, “must achieve universal access to water and sanitation.” The “why” is clear. Strong linkages exist not only between illness and Water/Sanitation/Hygiene [WASH], but also food security and nutrition, child and maternal health, girls’ education, gender rights, stopping 17 Neglected Tropical Diseases [NTDs], poverty alleviation, much more, and let’s underscore:

Water-related sickness and death are preventable. That sounds like a birthday present for every child.

Barnett, a former network news producer, is a strategic media/communications consultant to nonprofits. She is founder of Faiths for Safe Water and ImpactCommunications.


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