An estimated 1.9 billion school days could be gained if the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) related to safe water supply and sanitation are achieved and the incidence of diarrheal illness is reduced.1
According to National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), India from a survey conducted in 2012 which has once again underlined the abysmal state of sanitation in the country. There were more households with a mobile phone than with a toilet. In fact, the last Census data reveals that the percentage of households having access to television and telephones in rural India exceeds the percentage of households with access to toilet facilities. Of the estimated billion people in the world who defecate in the open, more than half reside in India.
Children are affected more than adults as the rampant spread of diseases inhibits children’s ability to absorb nutrients thereby stunting their growth. This unhygienic environment is due to India’s historic neglect of public health services. The absence of an effective public health network in a densely populated country has resulted in an extraordinarily high disease burden. According to the UNICEF, water-borne diseases such as diarrhea and respiratory infections are the number one cause for child deaths in India. Children weakened by frequent diarrhea episodes are more vulnerable to malnutrition and opportunistic infections such as pneumonia. With 638 million people defecating in the open and 44 per cent mothers disposing their children’s faeces in the open, there is a very high risk of microbial contamination (bacteria, viruses, amoeba) of water which causes diarrhea in children. Also, diarrhea and worm infection are two major health conditions that affect school children impacting their learning abilities.
There are many organizations and public- private collaborations working to improve access to toilets, improving drainage facilities and creating awareness through education campaigns on the importance of preventive tools such as hand washing. Hand washing with soap is among the most effective and inexpensive ways to prevent diarrheal diseases and pneumonia. Poor wash causes diarrhea, which is the second biggest cause of death in children under five years.
According to the UNICEF, hand washing with soap, particularly after contact with excreta, can reduce diarrheal diseases by over 40 per cent and respiratory infections by 30 per cent. Hand washing by birth attendants before delivery has been shown to reduce mortality rates by 19 per cent while a 4 per cent reduction in risk of death was found if mothers washed their hands prior to handling their newborns.
Schools provide an excellent opportunity for children and parents to learn about healthy hygiene practices. There is an urgent need for adequate, well-maintained water supply and hygiene facilities which include proper toilets and hand washing basins in schools all across India. Inadequate water supply and sanitation in schools are health hazards and affect school attendance, retention and educational performance.
1. Hutton, Guy and Laurence Haller, Evaluation of the Costs and Benefits of Water and Sanitation Improvements at the Global Level, World Health Organization, Geneva, 2004.