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Zika virus: “Improved water and sanitation services are the best answer” – UN experts note

Zika in Latin America

11 March 2016

Spanish | Portuguese

GENEVA (11 March 2015) – “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,” today said the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Léo 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-Barré 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. 

This statement has also been endorsed by the Special Rapporteur on health, Dainius Pūras, and the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston. 


The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms. Special Procedures mandate-holders are independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organization. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work.

Léo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation:

Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context:

Dainius Pūras, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health:

Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights:

Realizing the human rights to water and sanitation – Download your handbook:

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