WaterAid calls for action to rid world of cholera and guinea worm

The key to eradicating both these diseases is ensuring access to clean water and sanitation.


17 May 2011 | Nepal

Leaders at this week's World Health Assembly in Geneva must take vital steps to address the global water and sanitation crisis and thereby help rid the world of two debilitating diseases, according to WaterAid.

The world is on the verge of eradicating dracunculiasis, a waterborne parasitic disease caused by guinea worm, which remains in only four countries – Mali, Ethiopia, Sudan and Ghana. If eradicated, it would become only the second disease wiped out by humankind since smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, cholera outbreaks, such as those that have recently plagued Haiti and Nigeria, could be a thing of the past if leaders focus on improving access to sanitation and water.

The key to eradicating both these diseases is ensuring access to clean water and sanitation.

Water, sanitation and hygiene have never been discussed specifically before at the WHA, and WaterAid has been working hard to ensure the subjects were included on the agenda for the 63rd Assembly for the decision-making body of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Eradicating Guinea Worm

"The key to preventing the spread of guinea worm is having a clean water supply," said Yael Velleman, WaterAid's Policy Analyst. "The international community has been working on eradicating this disease for more than 20 years and we are now at the last hurdle. This is truly a historic time for us to rid the world of this disease forever and access to safe water is the key to doing this."

The guinea worm lives in stagnant water. When people drink contaminated water, the parasite grows up to three feet and lives just below the skin, often crippling its human host. There are no medicines to treat the disease or vaccines to prevent it. The only cure is to slowly, painfully extract it over days. While the disease is not lethal, its disabling effect prevents those affected from working or attending school.

WaterAid is calling on Member States at this week's Assembly to support the four countries affected to improve access to safe drinking water and reach their most vulnerable populations to ensure the disease is finally eradicated with no chance of return. We are also calling for more coherence between the water and health sectors, who do not currently work together in most developing countries.

Making cholera a thing of the past

While the WHO has repeatedly stated that efforts to address cholera should be focussed on improving water and sanitation, there has been a strong push for stricken countries to adopt the use of oral vaccines.

WaterAid has warned that vaccines must not be the sole method of containing cholera, but that they should be part of a comprehensive strategy to prevent the disease.

Yael said: "In the past 12 months we have seen the devastating effect that cholera has on the world's poorest people. Recent outbreaks such as those seen in Haiti or Nigeria would not have occurred if access to safe water and sanitation facilities was secured."

WaterAid is calling on leaders to ensure that sanitation and water are prioritised in a resolution on controlling and preventing the deadly disease, which is due to be discussed and approved by the Assembly this week.

The WHO estimates that 10% of global disease burden could be prevented with safe water, sanitation and hygiene. These basic services are critical in tackling some of the leading causes of child mortality such as diarrhoea, which alone kills more children each year than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

Half of the developing world's hospital beds filled with patients suffering from sanitation and water-related diseases, compounding the challenges faced by over-burdened and under-resourced health systems.