Water: an indispensable ally in the fight against Ebola

water and ebola

Water, sanitation and hygiene play a crucial role in approaching communities and providing them with the right tools to ensure their health (Photo: UNICEF DRC Naftalin)

Since 8 May 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has faced its ninth epidemic of the Ebola virus disease. The Government and its partners have united their efforts around a common objective: to make life prevail by bringing the epidemic that has hit the Equateur Province, in the north-west of the country, to an end.

The response plan was rapidly established. Based on its experience from previous epidemics, UNICEF concentrated its efforts on information for local communities, on psychosocial support for affected persons, and on water, sanitation and hygiene.

In emergency situations, it is essential to guarantee access to water and to hygiene products and facilities, in order to protect populations from disease. Water, sanitation and hygiene help children and their families to prevent contact with the Ebola virus disease and to stay safe.

Water is an essential and crucial component in the fight against the Ebola epidemic. We need it to spray first-line agents, to clean and disinfect healthcare centres, to allow children to wash their hands, etc. To fight the epidemic, we need water!

As a specialist in water, sanitation and hygiene, my first mission was to ensure that water, sanitation and hygiene were available in the treatment centre in the city of Mbandaka. When I arrived there a few days after the declaration of the epidemic by the Minister of Public Health, I found an abandoned building with outdated infrastructure and inoperative sanitary facilities. The spread of diarrhoea is enabled by the lack of potable water during an Ebola epidemic, which worsens sanitary conditions for the sick and exposes neighbouring families to disease.

It was necessary to install the right facilities quickly in order to ensure adequate care for the sick. Loved ones who accompanied patients, who could spend many days on the premises, also needed these facilities. “We have had to relieve ourselves at the neighbours’ houses because there were no toilets here”, a mother told me.

Without water, it is impossible to maintain good hygiene. UNICEF thus provided 67 healthcare centres with potable water, chlorine, handwashing facilities, latrines and showers. Moreover, the management of biomedical waste was defective. This presented a great risk for healthcare personnel and for neighbouring communities. UNICEF thus briefed healthcare personnel on risk control measures and constructed makeshift incinerators in order to manage biomedical waste.

However, we needed to not limit our efforts to healthcare centres – everyone needs water, sanitation and hygiene! Children remain the most affected by the Ebola epidemic and can easily facilitate the propagation of the epidemic in their communities. It was thus necessary to intervene at this level in order to stop the propagation of the epidemic and we knew that handwashing would reduce cases of Ebola.

We thus hugely encouraged populations to adopt this practice. In schools, markets, ports and churches, we installed handwashing facilities and raised the awareness of more than 550,000 people on prevention and protection measures. Elderly people, mothers, fathers, girls and boys rapidly adopted good practices, ensuring their health and that of their loved ones.

Water, sanitation and hygiene play a crucial role in approaching communities and providing them with the right tools to ensure their health.

More than ever, water is life!

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Translated from French by Darren Ou Yong

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Jean Marie Sangira

Jean Marie Sangira est Spécialiste Eau, assainissement et hygiène au bureau UNICEF de Kinshasa.

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