Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Water and Sanitation: Probably the Greatest Possible Benefit to Health that Exists

Great to read an article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) making it quite clear, if it wasn't clear enough already, that the cure for cholera is improving access to safe water and sanitation. The recent massive cholera epidemic in Haiti means that several years and billions of dollars of aid money have not resulted in the provision of safe water and sanitation. The epidemic in Zimbabwe means that provision of water and sanitation, which may have been adequate at one time, collapsed. (It is estimated that about half a million people were infected with some kind of diarrhea in Zimbabwe alone in 2012.)

The good news is that lots of diseases can be wrapped up along with cholera and eradicated; most water-borne diseases. The bad news is that no country has ever eradicated cholera or any other water-borne disease without providing clean water and sanitation. The mere development of a vaccine for cholera or any other single disease misses the point and misses a wonderful opportunity. Half a million cholera infections and thousands of deaths are reported every year, all for want of clean water and sanitation. But the true number of infections is likely to be several million and the number of deaths likely to be 100-200,000.

Institutions such as the Gates Foundation like to boast about how many billions they are putting into vaccines for individual diseases, such as rotavirus. That's admirable in its own way, but why line up a few diseases to be addressed and ignore the conditions that ensure these diseases will remain endemic for the foreseeable future? Especially considering how long lack of access to clean water and sanitation has been one of the most serious issues facing developing countries. If, as the NEJM article claims, the problem is related to rapid urbanization, we're a long time getting around to it; urbanization in many African countries began decades ago.

Access to clean water and sanitation for all may seem like a very long term goal. However, in conjunction with improved health services and education, better water and sanitation will also lead to better health and educational attainment indicators. Even maternal and child health, which are often said to be priorities, would be greatly improved. Rather than targeting various diseases and sectors of developing country populations, improved water and sanitation for all would result in benefits for all sectors. Indeed, progress in health and education provision will be a lot slower without improvements in water and sanitation provision.

In relation to the challenges of such an intervention, NEJM mentions expanded access to antiretroviral treatment to poor people in developing countries. But improved water and sanitation is not at all like antiretroviral treatment; everyone needs access to water and sanitation, not just pockets of people in certain parts of certain countries. Improved antiretroviral treatment does not aim to prevent HIV transmission, though big claims are now made about preventive benefits. Antiretroviral treatment is not like provision of water and sanitation because the former targets one disease, almost entirely ignoring other diseases, and even health, education and other development areas.

Indeed, the parallel is even weaker than that. Lack of access to water and sanitation affects all poor people, especially those living in rural areas and, arguably, affects women and children more, perhaps more directly, than adults and men. HIV is often more common among wealthier people with better education, and certainly among those who live in more urbanized areas. The article concludes that "the current state of development leaves more than a billion of the poorest and most marginalized people at risk of ingesting feces with their food and water". So let's not approach lack of water and sanitation as we did HIV and access to antiretroviral drugs. Access to clean water and sanitation is a basic human right, so why not approach it that way?



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