July 26, 2012
By Michael Bell
“Don’t pee up river, pee down river.” Wise words coming from my fellow classmate as we were coming out of lecture on diarrheal diseases.
Diarrhea is always in the back of the mind of the experienced traveler. And we know that all too well. Already, we’ve had our fair share of comic relief from sharing stories of our Imodium use to our bowl movements timing so that no one misses out on the fun of being abroad. Ingesting a strange bacteria and getting diarrhea can be a “real bummer” for travelers from developed countries as our lecturer Dr. Osama Khalid likes to say. But for the poorer corners of the globe, this is a serious disease.
Diarrheal diseases is the second leading cause of death in low-income countries and fifth in middle-income countries but virtually nonexistent as a leading killer in high-income countries. Because diarrhea results from the contamination of food or water, a strong correlation between sanitation and diarrheal death exists. The catch with this disease is that it’s preventable with clean water, adequate nutrition, and maybe even a little soap—all things that people should have access to regardless of class or creed. Another scary thing about this is the viscous cycle of disease, death, and chaos. In developing region, especially the rural slums of Asia and Africa, the political instability leads to the lack of proper infrastructure to ensure a source of clean water. The lack of clean water results in infections of the enteric system causing diarrheal diseases, which in turn incapacity the population to build infrastructure and even leads to more unrest.
Possibly, the saddest part of this disease is its affliction on the child population especially those under the age of five. Because children have weaker immune systems, higher water content, and are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition, diarrhea affects child more often and much worse than adults. It causes 1.8 million child deaths in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Mother has a solution this however—breast-feeding. Full of clean nutrients and immunological booster, breast milk effectively reduces the chances for her child to develop the disease. Problems occur when a mother has too many children. She can’t breast-feed them all, and so usually only the youngest will get this scarce product. Diarrhea kills children very slowly, weakening them with each case depleting them of nutrients and dehydrating them. Eventually, the children become too fatigue and their immune system too weakened that they succumbed to what would otherwise be a dangerous disease.
Luckily, treatment exists for the diarrheal diseases. If the patient is fortunate enough to have access to medical attention, the routine procedure of oral rehydration therapy (ORS) using a solution approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) and zinc supplementation is quite successful. Access is the biggest issue in treatment of diarrheal diseases. My mom always made sure that we knew how lucky we were to be in America; she used to tell us how they would use coconut water in the Philippines instead of ORS.
Really the best thing we can do for developing nations is to ensure a source of clean water and access to it for all the inhabitants. That and those downstream latrines so no one is tempted to pee upstream anyway!
Michael Bell is a sophomore majoring in Neuroscience from the central beaches of Florida!