Although global death rates of children under five resulting from diarrheal disease has fallen from a global high of 1.2 million in 2000 to 500,000 in 2015, it still represents the second leading cause of morbidity for this age group. These deaths are mainly preventable; 88% of them are attributed to a lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). The significant decrease in the last 15 years is a major achievement largely due to improvements in access to better quality drinking water, toilets, and better hygiene and care practices. These changes prevent young children being infected with harmful microbes that come from drinking dirty water and living in dirty environments, and contracting severe diarrheal diseases, which without sufficient treatment or in vulnerable children ultimately leads to death.
Of course diarrhea is not the only threat to infant and young children. Ongoing research indicates that the same WASH factors that lead to diarrhea, also lead to stunting and malnutrition in young children. This is because low level of exposure to harmful microbes damages the intestinal tract and prevents proper absorption of nutrients in children. Infants and children under five are more vulnerable to being infected by microbes and get ill far quicker. From a health perspective, the targeting of effective WASH infrastructure is crucial to reach the most vulnerable groups.
Provision of WASH programs for vulnerable children whilst at nurseries or child care centers could be the most efficient way to protect their health. In Naivasha whilst researching risks of diarrheal disease for my PhD case study, I was shown Vision Nursery. The nursery cares for on average around 40 children in one small room. There is no drinking water provision, only water stored in containers from a tap stand. The nursery has access to a child adapted toilet (a container based toilet, provided by Sanivation), a positive step in WASH provision, however, without handwashing or regular cleaning the use of the toilet carries its own risks. Moreover, the nursery is also host to resident chickens, which are major carriers of harmful bacteria and co-habitation with people is linked to malnutrition and stunting in children according to recent research. The mud and rough concrete floor means cleaning and hygiene is difficult to maintain. There is inadequate space and utensils to safely prepare the childrens’ meals, and food cannot be re-heated or stored in secure containers.
Despite all of these shortcomings, the nursery provides an essential service. The female entrepreneur who started Vision Nursery has been running it for almost seven years and rents the small space. She is constrained by small margins, high rents, and lack of borrowing power. Her operation is linked to the Kenyan flower industry- a global success story of export growth. Naivasha is an epicenter of this booming export center for flowers, and it is driven overwhelmingly by a female workforce. The associated employment opportunities allow women to gain a regular income with positive consequences of independence, empowerment, and rising equality for women in Kenyan society. An unintended consequence of female empowerment is the growth in a secondary industry of local nurseries and childcare. There are little to no regulations for nurseries in Kenya, and if they do exist, they are not enforced. This allows for poor standards to exist, particularly in regard to WASH provision.
Potential baby WASH strategies to combat infection at the nursery level focus on robust barriers to specific exposure pathways that are specific for infant behaviours. For example, ingestion of pathogens occurs indirectly when children place contaminated objects in their mouths. Termed ‘mouthing’ it is responsible for almost 90% of a child’s exposure in one study.
Other direct exposure pathways include placing of hands directly into mouths and touching dirty floors. It’s important to regularly disinfect toys and maintain hygienic floor surfaces—possibly through use of mats or plastic, washable floor covers. Informed WASH strategies should be developed which can identify a broad range of baby-specific exposure routes. Indeed these indirect routes may be far more of consequence for children than direct routes of drinking contaminated water and food, which are traditionally the focus of WASH household campaigns.
The safe disposal of faeces remains the primary barrier to prevent dispersal of pathogenic bacteria in the environment and subsequent exposure routes. Despite a recent systematic review of health impact from sanitation intervention that concludes there is a lack of robust evidence, provision of safe sanitation is ultimately necessary to reduce contaminated environments that occurs as a result of open defecation.
In addition to focusing on specific prevention strategies at the nursery level, it is also crucial to increase integration between WASH, early childhood development (ECD), nutrition, and maternal newborn and child health (MNCH) programming. In addition, it’s important that outcome and impact monitoring is not uniquely focused on reduction in diarrheal disease. Impact monitoring and value for money evaluations should also explore targets that are linked with nutrition, undernutrition, and height and weight. It is notoriously difficult to link specific WASH interventions with impacts, without radnomised controlled trials, due to the huge variety of exposure pathways and variables that exist.
The WASH and sanitation sector might consider moving its focus from mostly household WASH and school sanitation to specialist WASH needs during infant care. If children survive the first year they are less vulnerable to further infection or severe outcomes. Therefore, intentionally focusing on activities at this juncture, as well as better integrating our efforts with other sectors—as the new babywashcoalition.org does—could have an enormous impact on child health.