By Samuel Godfrey
The January 2016 Huffington Post article entitled Why are Indian kids smaller than Africa kids: hint its not race authored by Sanjay Wikesekera, UNICEF Global WASH Chief and Werner Shultink, UNICEF Global Nutrition Chief, highlighted the link between child stunting and lack of access to toilets. Children growing up in an environment where people are defecating in the open will result in kids crawling around on dirty floors, putting feacally contaminated material and objects in their mouths and ultimately will results in children having high rates of diarrhea which will result in their stunted physical and mental development.
To understand this better, UNICEF Ethiopia WASH team and John Hopkins University undertook a systematic review of more than 1000 peer reviewed academic articles with the aim of identifying interventions that health and WASH professionals can take or promote to reduce the contact of children with feacally contaminated material. The review identified strong evidence on the linkage between open defecation, stunting and early child development (See figure below from Ngure et al (2014).
The review also notes good knowledge of how to do hygiene and sanitation promotion to safe disposal of adult feaces but limited evidence on safe disposal of baby feaces.
UNICEF Ethiopia is using the review to design specific Baby WASH interventions that can complement our current Infant Young Child Feeding programmes. Ethiopia has substantially reduced Open Defecation during the last 25 years. In 1990, an estimated 9 out of 10 people were “pooing” in the open and by 2015, this had reduced by 64 per cent to less than 1 in 3 people. However, despite this progress, almost half of children were recorded as ‘stunted’ or not achieving their full physical and mental growth by 2015. The literature suggests that Baby WASH, as we have termed it, may be one of the key “missing pieces” in reducing stunting. Baby WASH comprises of a ‘menu’ of physical and promotions activities which will reduce the exposure of the BABY to ingestion of feaces and ultimately reduce stunting and improve Early Childhood Development.
Watch this space for more details on field evidence on Baby WASH from UNICEF Ethiopia as we work closely with the Government of Ethiopia and development partners to expand this intervention throughout Ethiopia in our new Country Programme of Cooperation between 2016 and 2020. For the time being, UNICEF Ethiopia is using its own financial core resources. Interested development partners are welcome to join this groundbreaking initiative.
UNICEF Ethiopia is collaborating with the US based Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Department of International Health, Program in Global Disease Epidemiology and Control. A researcher from the school was an intern in the UNICEF Ethiopia WASH section in 2015 and has collaborated with the WASH section on producing a paper entitled Evidence on Interventions Targeted at Reducing Unsafe Disposal of Child Feaces: A Systematic Review.
UNICEF Ethiopia’s rural wash activities are supported by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Government of Netherlands, the Government of Canada and the UNICEF National Committees from Germany, UK and New Zealand.
Dr. Samuel Godfrey is Chief of WASH for UNICEF Ethiopia, and has a PhD and MSc in Civil Engineering and Water and Waste Engineering.
 Stunting is a sign of ‘shortness’ and develops over a long period of time. In children and adults, it is measured through the height-for-age nutritional index. In Ethiopia approximately 40 per cent of children are stunted.