To mark World Water Week, we chatted to Geordie Woods, Sightsavers’ technical director for WASH and behaviour change for NTDs, about the importance of water and hygiene to prevent disease and save sight.
What does WASH stand for and why is it important?
WASH stands for water, sanitation and hygiene. All three parts are vital to development and public health, but each have their own particular scope. WASH interventions have broad public health benefits that reduce multiple diseases. They also contribute to non-disease-related issues such as school attendance.
Can you describe your role?
I provide technical assistance to our country teams putting WASH programmes into action and advise on Sightsavers’ global WASH strategy. I spend a lot of my time working on behaviour change programmes, which encourage good health and hygiene and discourage negative habits. This is because preventing people from getting diseases can be just as important to eliminating diseases as treating them.
Advocacy is also really important, and much of our work involves working with country organisations and governments to understand what resources they need from us in areas at high risk of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).
Why is water so important to beat NTDs?
Water is vital to prevent NTDs and care for patients. Three main aspects of this are:
As well as helping to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, WASH is also crucial to treat and care for people already affected by them. The work we do helps to reduce the severity of disabilities and to improve quality of life.
Having safe water sources is also important to care for patients with diseases such as leprosy and lymphatic filariasis, and it ensures surgery can be carried out in hygienic conditions.
What is your favourite water-related memory from a programme?
One of my favourite memories was in a small community in northern Kenya. The school we were working in had no water at all on the school grounds. As part of the Super School of 5 programme to help eliminate trachoma, students were taught about healthy hygiene practices and how, with a very small amount of water, they could wash their hands and faces.
The teachers met the parents in the community and asked the children to bring small bottles of water from home, to ensure the hygiene stations at school had enough water every day for all students to keep clean and prevent the spread of disease. It was amazing how water made such a dramatic change in this school – and know the difference it would make in such young lives.
How can influencing people’s behaviour prevent disease?
Changing behaviour involves changing social norms. The hope is that by changing habits, you change them forever. If you, and all your brothers and sisters, grow up with the habit of washing your hands and face every day when they’re dirty, your children and your children’s children are likely to do the same. My job is to help communities and programmes to find the best ways to make this change.