That is until now. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has monopolised news and discussion for over five months now, as we have been inundated with images of suffering. The World Health Organisation (WHO) advises washing carefully as among the ways to protect against the virus.
But for many, that is simply not possible because of a long-term problem – lack of sanitation.
If we look closer, it is clear the problems surrounding hygiene and sanitation are not getting better, despite being a focus of the United Nations.
The Millennium Development Goal for sanitation – to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation by 2015 – is currently significantly off track. At its present rate of progress, it will be the 23rd century before Sub-Saharan Africa meets its sanitation Millennium Development Goals target, and 350 years from the present to get to universal access.
Of the 2.6 billion people who are without sanitation worldwide, 526 million of these are thought to be women and girls – forced to defecate in the open or in bushes or ditches; and to cope with menstruation in the absence of any real privacy. Women often face a horrendous choice – wait until dark to use a public toilet, if there is one available, or to defecate in their homes, with the only alternative to defecate in the open and risk being humiliated, sexually harassed or assaulted.
Spending on sanitation has huge economic benefits – for every pound invested in sanitation and water, there’s a return of around £4. Health is improved, fewer days are lost to sickness, and children, especially girls, stay at school longer.