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Cristian: A Story of Water

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Sometimes I feel like I’m exploiting a dead child, but I tell people Cristian’s story because when this energetic boy died, it was for an incredibly shortsighted reason. I tell Cristian’s story -- a little boy I never knew -- because surviving past one’s childhood shouldn’t be about getting lucky. Nor should it be due to the one symbol every world religion shares. Because there is nothing “blessed” about the way Cristian died. Cristian had a Neglected Tropical Disease, an NTD. NTDs spread through unsafe water, so they tend to attack the poorest of the poor. 1.4 billion people are sickened; 500 million are children. But for Cristian, the news had been good. His illness was treatable with a steady routine of hand and face washing. Despite following doctor’s orders, his parents were shocked as Cristian’s eye infection grew into a tumor that covered part of his face. In the impoverished outskirts of the capitol city of Honduras where they live, like thousands of communities around the world, water is a disease-ridden gateway to illness, poverty and even death. Cristian suffered for two years and when he was 11-years-old, he died of complications from a completely preventable and treatable disease, simply because his family did not have access to safe water. I just can’t believe in 2017, this kind of preventable death is so commonplace. The lack of safe water is the #1 cause of death in children. Today is World Water Day. A day I dare each of us to do two things: Appreciate the easy access, dignity and safety we find in safe water and sanitation; and imagine of what our lives might be like without it. I say “dare” because we know existence is not possible without water, yet it’s hard not to conclude that we’ve normalized the idea that it’s “ok” to live without it. More kids die from the lack of access to safe water and sanitation than from all forms of violence, including war. Children suffer stunting, permanent brain damage from malnutrition, because their bodies can’t absorb nutrients due to chronic diarrhea caused by unsafe water. Kids lose out on education because they’re too sick to go to school. Girls lose out because they have to help their moms haul heavy water from faraway dirty streams and ponds that make their families sick. Even in key institutions – schools and hospitals – water and sanitation are dismally lacking. An American doctor I know was asked to review water and sanitation in 13 healthcare facilities in rural Ethiopia last year. She and her team found themselves in a packed labor and delivery ward “when an unexpected twin was born not breathing, we had no choice. With almost no protective gear, two nurses I’d brought with me jumped in and saved the baby. Covered with blood, we just had to hope no mother or child we came in contact with that day was infected with HIV, hepatitis... We had no way to clean up because this massive, overcrowded hospital that serves 2.5 million people, had had no water in six weeks.” Dr. Margaret “Migs” Muldrow is the founder of Village Health Partnership, which helps create health systems in rural Ethiopia. Without exception, each of the 13 facilities she surveyed went through extended periods of having no water. When the World Health Organization surveyed hospitals and healthcare facilities in 54 low- and middle-income countries in 2015, it found that 40% of facilities do not have access to safe water; almost 20% do not have basic sanitation; and 35% do not have soap and water for handwashing. [By the way, at least in Africa, faith-based organizations provide between 30 - 50% of institutional health care.] Yet Dr. Muldrow sees hope. Though one of the most desperate places in terms of maternal and child health, these mortality rates in Ethiopia are dropping in areas where international assistance and the Ethiopian government have reach. “We’re learning that local commitment is vital to creating sustainable health systems,” says Dr. Muldrow, “But it seems to me that we shouldn’t have to learn that water is, too.” 663 million people live without safe drinking water and 1.4 billion without sanitation. I like the word “resist” because resisting is recognizing that we can do something. Rather than settle for a world in which we normalize poverty, child stunting and even death due to water, we know this problem is solvable. The real issue is it’s not being prioritized. Until that changes, I will continue to tell Cristian’s story, until every day becomes World Water Day. I hope you will, too.