Q&A: Why WASH is Critical to the Fight Against HIV/AIDS

People with HIV can live better and healthier lives through improved access to water, sanitation, and hygiene.

Mariella Furrer/EGPAF

March 22 is World Water Day and to mark the occasion, we interviewed Jordan Teague from WASH Advocates. Below she shares why proper water, sanitation, and hygiene are crucial to the global fight against HIV/AIDS.

What is WASH?

The term WASH refers to safe drinking water (water that can be consumed without risk of disease), sanitation (safe disposal of human waste), and hygiene (behaviors and environmental conditions that help to prevent the spread of disease). According to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme, 748 million people globally do not have access to an improved drinking water source and 2.5 billion people still do not have access to improved sanitation.

How is WASH linked to the HIV/AIDS epidemic?

HIV/AIDS disproportionately affects the poor and those in regions where living conditions are overcrowded, unsanitary, and lack access to water, medical care, and proper nutrition. Often, regions with poor water and sanitation conditions are also regions with high HIV/AIDS prevalence. Access to WASH bolsters efforts to save and improve the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS.

Why is it important to consider WASH in the fight against HIV/AIDS?

The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has identified WASH as a key intervention for people living with HIV/AIDS in certain contexts. When communities do not have adequate water or sanitation, diarrheal episodes increase, and the health of the entire community is affected. What’s more, people living with HIV/AIDS are more vulnerable to infection due to their suppressed immune systems, and are disproportionately affected by lack of access to WASH. In fact, people living with HIV/AIDS are at greater risk for developing diarrheal disease, have it more frequently, have more severe episodes, and are more likely to die from it.

Why is it important to integrate HIV/AIDS and WASH services?

Several billion dollars are spent each year to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and a large portion of that money is used to provide antiretroviral medication (ARVs) to HIV-positive patients to help them live long and productive lives. However, persistent diarrhea caused by lack of WASH greatly reduces the efficacy of this therapy by preventing absorption of both the ARV medication and other essential nutrients. Diarrhea in people living with HIV/AIDS literally flushes aid money down the toilet – that is, if they have a toilet.

Actually, a toilet could be the solution – along with safe drinking water and hygiene education. Research shows that access to WASH significantly reduces diarrheal episodes among people living with HIV/AIDS, enhancing their quality of life and allowing their ARV medications to work effectively. Furthermore, access to WASH decreases the burden on caregivers, with a labor-saving impact that allow more time for other activities, including school and income generation.

Ensuring access to WASH for people living with HIV/AIDS also makes HIV/AIDS funding and medication more efficient and effective. By integrating WASH and HIV/AIDS efforts we can improve the lives of millions around the world.

Jordan Teague is the Associate Director for WASH Integration at WASH Advocates, where she focuses on elevating effective integration of WASH with other development sectors, such as nutrition, NTDs, and HIV/AIDS.