GENEVA, 11th March, 2016 (WAM) – “As the world looks for hi-tech solutions to the Zika virus, we should not forget the appalling state of water and sanitation access of the poor, a key underlying determinant of the right to health,” said the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Leo Heller.

“We can engineer sterile mosquitos or use sophisticated Internet tools to map data globally, but we should not forget that today a hundred million people in Latin America still lack access to hygienic sanitation systems and seventy million people lack piped water in their places of residence,” the independent expert stressed.

“There is a strong link between weak sanitation systems and the current outbreak of the mosquito borne Zika virus, as well as dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya,” Mr. Heller said, “and the most effective way to tackle this problem is to improve the failing services.”

The expert noted that the Latin American region met the UN Millennium Development Goal target for water in 2010, but the advancements are still not reaching all. Regarding sanitation, the goal remains unachieved and 3 million people still practice open defecation. “Because of stricter definitions for the related goals within the framework of the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development these will reveal an even more dramatic lack of access to safe water and sanitation in the region”, he warned.

“When people have inadequate living and housing conditions, where they do not have access to safely managed water services, they tend to store water in unsafe ways that attract mosquitos,” the UN expert on adequate housing, Leilani Farha, noted. “In addition, poor sanitation systems where wastewater flows through open channels and is disposed of in unsafe pits leads to stagnant water and unfit housing – a perfect habitat for breeding mosquitos.”

The right to the full enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health of the people in the region is severely compromised at the moment and this is directly associated with the lack of access to clean water and sanitation by large sectors of the population.

In Latin America it is the poorest and most marginalized who are suffering disproportionately from the additional burden of the Zika virus, potentially linked to both microcephaly (babies born with abnormally small heads), and Guillain-Barr? Syndrome (a neurological condition), as well as other mosquito borne diseases.

These ‘new’ diseases put an additional strain on women, who carry the burden of the fear of the diseases during their pregnancies and often care for the potentially sick children. Women and children are disproportionately affected by the current Zika virus outbreak and health systems need to be ready to respond to their specific health needs and rights by listening to their concerns, ensuring their autonomy, and involving them in the measures that affect them.

“Governments in the region must speed up the improvement of water and sanitation conditions, in particular for the most vulnerable populations, in order to save lives in the face of this unfolding global health crisis,” Special Rapporteur Heller said.