The Dirty Side of Water

The Dirty Side of Water


WATER: We drink it. We bathe in it. We are comprised of it.

Water remains one of the most important resources for our health. When communities are constantly faced with a lack of access to clean and safe water supplies they suffer from disease, and infants within these communities are especially susceptible to diarrheal diseases. Consumption of contaminated water, lack of private excreta disposal, and the presence of excreta in the yard were associated with the largest increases in risk of disease in infants. Unclean water and unsanitary bottles used to give infants formula can often cause extreme illness, and is one of the greatest contributing factors in the deaths of 1.3 million children who die from diarrhea each year.  The largest correlation between diarrheal rates in infants and sanitation is also intrinsically linked to whether or not an infant is exclusively breasted, bottle fed, or a mix of both. The contamination of infant food is greatest where sanitation is poor, and the protective factors of breastfeeding are greatest in crowded and highly contaminated societies. In fact, exclusively breastfed infants within areas of poor sanitation show the same rate of diarrheal prevalence as those living in good sanitation conditions.

Breastfeeding gives infants the nutrients and antibodies they need to develop healthily. However, 2 out of 3 infants around the world are not exclusively breastfed. In many countries around the world there is a lack of knowledge concerning the benefits of breastfeeding, and alternatively there is also a lack of knowledge regarding the negative risks associated with bottle-feeding.  The contamination of water sources used for mixing formula or giving alternate foods supplements in lieu of breastfeeding is especially harmful for children with undeveloped immune responses.  Both exclusive breastfeeding practices for a minimum of six months, and increased sanitation will help to decrease the worldwide prevalence of diarrhea. Integrating clean water with other lifesaving tools is at the heart of our efforts to save children’s lives from diseases that are all too common in vulnerable communities and that compromise the top two threats to children worldwide, diarrhea and pneumonia.

An example of such an initiative is a pilot project led by PATH and the government of Cambodia. The project concentrates it efforts within Kampong Thom Province and focuses on equipping health workers to guide families within the village on a variety of preventive strategies geared towards both diseases, safe water and sanitation at home, exclusive breastfeeding, etc. Treatment options include health worker training, urgent rehydration, zinc to treat diarrhea, and antibiotics for pneumonia. The program targets advocacy at a national level to strengthen the policy environment and ensure effective interventions and reliable supplies are available in public and private health sectors, as well as increase the awareness of the burden of both diseases.

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VanDerslice, J., Popkin, B., & Briscoe, J. (1994). Drinking-water quality, sanitation, and breast-feeding: Their interactive effects on infant health. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 72(4), 589-601.

Butz, W. P., Habicht, J. P., & DaVanzo, J. (1984). Environmental factors in the relationship between breastfeeding and infant mortality: The role of sanitation and water in malaysia. American Journal of Epidemiology, 119(4), 516-525.


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