Originally published in WASH in Healthcare Facilities, a publication by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, on March 28, 2019. The article has been edited to address health and safety concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2014, amid the Ebola outbreak, doctors and nurses did not have reliable, accessible safe water in places like Liberia. The same is true now for medical professionals in developing countries. Many of them are caring for the sick in under-resourced and overrun healthcare facilities amid an unprecedented health crisis. In areas reported to be affected by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), doctors and nurses lack reliable, accessible safe water.
To aid them in their life-saving work, Water Mission is equipped and positioned to assist doctors and nurses by:
- ensuring they have water that is treated (with chlorine) and safe for drinking, handwashing, and disinfecting;
- encouraging medical staff to store and transport water in a manner that prevents recontamination; and
- promoting coronavirus-specific hygiene information amongst medical staff, patients, and community members.
What We Learned from the Ebola Outbreak
In 2014, at the height of the Ebola epidemic, Water Mission began partnering with UNICEF to provide safe water treatment systems to hospitals, healthcare centers, and Ebola treatment units in Liberia.
The J.J. Dossan Memorial Hospital, which served more than 150 patients a day, was a tragic example of the way that patients and staff at under-resourced healthcare facilities around the world suffer from the lack of safe water.
“Patients or family members had to leave the hospital and retrieve dirty water at their homes or from a distant borehole,” Dr. Obiazi Francis, a general physician at the hospital, told us. “We had very little water and the storage tanks were moldy and unclean — so we couldn’t use them for cooking or drinking, let alone patient care. We were extremely limited in the [medical] treatment that we could really provide.”
A 2015 World Health Organization and UNICEF study on 54 low- and middle-income countries found that 38% of water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities in healthcare settings were unimproved, or lacked water source protected from outside contamination. Of the 62% with improved water sources, water samples collected from the sites still tested positive for fecal contamination.
This lack of safe water created a dangerous environment for patients susceptible to additional infections spread by contaminated drinking water, unsterilized instruments, and limited handwashing facilities. According to a study published in The Lancet, healthcare-associated infection is the most frequent result of unsafe patient care worldwide. As these studies illustrate, poor water quality in healthcare facilities can negatively impact the health of sick patients and increase the spread of diseases such as COVID-19.
What We Can Do to Combat the Coronavirus
In this unprecedented global health crisis, we cannot take risks, especially as we collectively try to protect the most vulnerable among us: the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
The good news is that simple water treatment solutions are available and can be incorporated into healthcare facility water supplies. Water Mission uses several safe water solutions, such as the Erosion Chlorinator, that can treat water with chlorine. This treated water can then be used to:
- eliminate the risk of most life-threatening waterborne diseases;
- maintain hygienic conditions of facilities; and
- help stop the spread of the coronavirus through frequent handwashing, an important way to prevent infection and fight COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But water treatment solutions such as the Erosion Chlorinator are only as effective as the systems set to routinely test and monitor water quality. Water quality testing can be done with simple, low-cost products, which can easily be obtained and conducted by healthcare facility staff after some basic training. This training allows healthcare providers to test their own water and ensure it continues to be safe to consume and use.
During the Ebola outbreak, we partnered with healthcare workers and provided them with safe water, allowing them to care for and protect 19,500 patients, minimizing further infections. Today, we can have this same, if not increased, effect on the global effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“Now, all of the wards have abundant water for all of our needs. It’s changed our ability to serve and treat patients. We can actually bathe our newborns, properly cook our food with water, and offer a drink of water without fear of the patient getting sicker,” Dr. Francis told us after a safe water system was installed at his hospital in 2014.
In our response to the 2020 coronavirus outbreak, we are providing safe water and hygiene solutions in healthcare settings. We are confident that with these resources, we can support doctors and nurses in caring for the sick, bringing health and hope amid so many uncertainties.
Join us in our global response to COVID-19.