2 MAY 2008

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by TITA VALDERAMA

WE MAY have heard enough toilet humor and rumors. Now it’s about time to get serious about a simple toilet habit that can save people from many health risks: washing hands.



ELEVEN out of 81 provinces, including Pampanga, have the lowest number of households with sanitary toilet facility, reflective of the importance that the Arroyo government attaches to the problem of sanitation.
Health and sanitation experts say this basic hygiene practice after a pee or poo can keep one away from several diseases, diarrhea and worm infections being among the most common and fatal.

Studies have found that human feces are the primary sources of diarrheal pathogens. The human waste is also the most dangerous water pollutant.

To illustrate, Engineer Rolando I. Santiago of the National Center for Disease Prevention and Control notes that a gram of human feces contains 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, 1,000 parasites, and 100 parasite eggs.

So, the next time after a poo (or handling a baby’s poo), make sure you wash your hands, and that you do so with soap. But you don’t just slosh soap and water onto your hands and then rinse. The proper and healthy way of keeping the left and right clean and bright, says former health secretary Jaime Galvez Tan, is to get the bubbles going, and then rinsing only after reciting “The Lord’s Prayer (Ama Namin)” or humming a birthday song.

Dr. Galvez Tan notes that at least 18 Filipinos die each day of diarrheal and other water-borne diseases, many of which can be prevented by, among other things, proper washing of hands after a visit to the toilet, and especially when one is handling food.

In East Asia, the figures run at 190,000 deaths each year from diarrheal disease, involving children aged five and under.

Not washing one’s hands or doing so improperly may well wash out many of the gains from the Philippines’ expected fulfillment of the water and sanitation target under Millennium Development Goal (MDG) No. 7. According to World Bank water and sanitation specialist Jemima Sy, indications are that the country will reach this target by the 2015 deadline “or soon afterward.”

The MDGs are a United Nations initiative to help the world’s poorest. MDG Number 7 is to “ensure environmental sustainability,” and under it is the target to halve by 2015 the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation.

TO BE deemed as having met this target, the Philippines must have 86.5 percent of its population with “sustainable access to improved water source” and 83.8 percent of its urban population “with access to improved sanitation.” According to the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB), three years ago, the country was still 6.3 percentage points away from the former (80.2), but had already overshot the latter by 2.4 percentage points (86.2).

Yet Sy and Santiago do not sound all that impressed. Santiago, for instance, cites a 2003 National Demographic and Health Survey by the Department of Health that showed that although 79.1 percent of Filipinos use flush toilets, there is still an alarming percentage of approximately 10 percent of the population with no access to a sanitary toilet and uses bodies of water as their collective kubeta.

The inclusion of Pampanga, home province of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, on the list of 11 out of 81 provinces with the lowest number of households with sanitary toilet facility mirrors the importance the incumbent government attaches to the problem of sanitation.

The other provinces are Sulu, Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Marinduque, Masbate, Zamboanga Sibugay, Maguindanao, Lanao del Norte, and Nueva Ecija.

“It is a totally different picture when we talk of public sewerage coverage,” says Santiago. “Only 10 percent of the 1, 650 towns and cities in the country have sewerage systems of varying degrees of compliance to standards.”

Currently, there are only four public sewerage systems outside Metro Manila. These are in Baguio City, Ilocos Norte, Zamboanga, and Cebu City.

Santiago says the sanitation problem contributes significantly to the health and economic burden in the Philippines. He points out, “Water pollution, sanitation conditions and hygiene practices alone are responsible for nearly one-quarter of all reported diseases and six percent of all reported deaths in the country.”

He cites another study, this time by the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which pegged the economic cost of poor sanitation at P77.8 billion a year or 1.5 percent of the Philippines’ Gross Domestic Product or GDP.

Santiago laments that the government is not providing enough investments to ensure the supply of clean water and improved sanitation. “The financing gap is not only evident at the national level but equally so at the local level where local chief executives regard sanitation as high capital investments,” he says.

People are also not willing to pay for sanitation services, and he blames poor enforcement of laws and lack of public awareness and education for this.

“When people are rightly informed and educated, parting with even scarce resources should not be a problem,” he asserts.

“There is lack of awareness of and appreciation for sanitation and hygiene resulting in the lack of demand for sanitation services and facilities,” Santiago says. “The low level of community participation in the decision-making processes, which often exclude the marginal and vulnerable sectors, such as indigenous peoples, makes for a total oblivious and unconcerned attitude of the community.”

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