By Latrice Davis
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Improving water quality and access can help lower maternal mortality rates, say advocates. Now a new fellowship program is being launched to explore various solutions to the maternal health problem in the world's poorest nations.
Still, good hygience practices are not common in many countries. A 2009 study published in the journal Health Education Research found that only 29 percent of 802 women surveyed in Kenya washed their hands with soap after using the bathroom, often due to lack of time and energy. (Washing one's hands with just water is the norm throughout the country.)
"Key motivations for hand washing were disgust, nurture, comfort and affiliation," wrote lead author Valerie Curtis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "Fear of disease generally did not motivate hand washing," as 43 percent of the women polled felt that diarrhea "is a normal part of growing up."
Contaminated water is also commonplace in developing countries. The World Health Organization, or WHO, and the United Nations Children's Fund issued a report in 2004 that found the definition of "safe water" varied from region to region. WHO has issued guidelines for maintaining water quality around the world since 1982, but leaves it up to each country to implement their own standards. Such inconsistency is why Global Water bypasses the government when it comes to installing water treatment systems.
"We're trying to fill a void that's been created by the leaders of the developing world themselves," Kuepper said. "There's a real lack of concern among these leaders to take care of their own people."
The U.N. Millennium Development Goals Report indicates that at the global level maternal mortality rates fell by less than one percent annually between 1990 and 2005--far below the 5.5 percent annual improvement needed to reach the world body's 2015 target. Of the eight Millennium Development Goals--U.N. benchmarks to reduce poverty and improve health--originally set in 2000, it's the area that has seen the least amount of progress.
"Women's health and empowerment is at the heart of all the development goals. I don't think any of them can be achieved unless we scale up a full range of reproductive health services and policies for women in every part of the world," Thomas said. "There's such great momentum around maternal health because the crux of women's reproductive health and rights is the saving of lives of women who are dying needlessly because of pregnancy or childbirth."
Improving women's access to clean water is directly linked to increasing their life expectancy. For example, a 2006 WHO survey found that women in countries such as Tanzania were only expected to live to the age of 51; one of the causes of death was consuming excessive levels of fluoride found in contaminated water. Those who do survive in countries with unsafe water have to deal with side effects like stiff joints.
"The body acclimates to some degree to accommodate the level of contamination in the water," Kuepper said. But he pointed out that such adaptation only applies to microorganisms like bacteria and viruses, not minerals like fluoride and arsenic. Since water contamination remains an environmental hazard to women and children in the world's poorest nations, he doesn't envision the development goals being fulfilled within the next six years.
"I don't see anything on the horizon to fix the problem. There's not enough funding efficiently being spent in water-short areas of the world," he said.
Latrice Davis is a freelance journalist based in New York.
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