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19 October 2005
Cleaning Up Water Supplies Would Help Save Lives Around the World
A concerted effort by governments and organizations around the world to provide access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation in all countries would alleviate many of the diseases that plague developing nations, according to a recent research commentary by Emory University scientists. The commentary by James M. Hughes, MD, director of the Emory Center for Global Safe Water in the Rollins School of Public Health, and Jeffrey P. Koplan, MD, Emory vice president for academic health affairs, is published in the October issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

According to the scientists, unsanitary water is largely responsible for diarrheal and other diseases, which were the third leading cause of death in children under five years of age from 2000-2003. According to the World Health Organization, almost 90 percent of deaths from diarrheal diseases have been linked to unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation. Experts estimate that one sixth of the world's population (1.1 billion people) are not able to access clean drinking water, while another 2.6 billion people live without adequate sanitation.

Some governmental and private organizations have recognized the problems that these conditions pose to developing countries and have taken steps to implement solutions. In 2000, member states at the United Nations Millennium Summit formulated a set of eight Millennium Development Goals, one of which was to ensure environmental sustainability around the world. Part of this goal was to make a 50 percent reduction in the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by the year 2015. Other public and private sector organizations like CARE, Proctor & Gamble, the Coca-Cola Company, and Starbucks (through its recent acquisition of Ethos Water) have also contributed to these efforts through various projects and initiatives.

But Emory researchers say that there is still much work to be done toward achieving these goals.

"There's a continuing need to draw attention to these issues and intervene to help reduce mortality and increase the quality of life in these countries," says Dr. Hughes. Organizations like Emory's Center for Global Safe Water have the opportunity to make a difference "through their expertise and evaluation of projects and techniques."

The most basic and important efforts would focus on providing access to safe water, basic sanitation and improved hygiene worldwide. Such an initiative would require collaboration by the world's governments and organizations, which would need to forge an agreement on their strategies, roles and responsibilities in order to make their efforts maximally effective.

Also, novel approaches to improving water, sanitation and hygiene quality should be explored and tailored to address specific local situations. Increases in hand washing with soap in African refugee camps and urban slums in Asia, along with in-home disinfection of drinking water in Kenya are two examples of innovative approaches that have helped to decrease the incidence of diarrheal diseases in these areas.

Recent events such as the tsunami in Asia and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the U.S. Gulf Coast have emphasized the importance of addressing water and sanitation problems everywhere, especially after natural disasters. But researchers stress that a much stronger commitment is necessary to adequately address these global public health concerns and break the cycles of disease and poverty that dominate life in developing countries.

© Emory University 2022

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