Teetering on the Brink of Eradicating Global Disease

May 18, 2011, 12:20 ET from WaterAid

World Health Assembly needs to prioritize safe water to eliminate guinea worm and cholera

NEW YORK, May 18, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Leaders at this week's World Health Assembly in Geneva could miss the last hurdle in finally ridding the world of a debilitating disease unless they take vital steps to address the global water crisis, said WaterAid today.

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, guinea worm would become only the second disease wiped out by humankind - the first since smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s.

"The key to preventing the spread of guinea worm is having a clean water supply," explained David Winder, CEO of WaterAid, America. "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 an historic time for us to rid the world of this disease 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. 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, which exacerbates the risk of chronic poverty.

WaterAid is calling on Member States at this week's Assembly to support the countries affected to improve access to safe drinking water and reach their most vulnerable populations to ensure the disease is eradicated. The international development agency is also calling for more coherence between the water and health sectors in developing countries.

Cholera: a thing of the past

WaterAid also reminded leaders that access to clean water and sanitation is the key to preventing outbreaks of cholera.

"We have seen the devastating effect that cholera has on the world's poorest people," said Dr. Winder. "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 prioritized in a resolution on controlling and preventing the deadly disease, which is due to be discussed and approved by the Assembly this week.

"The development of safe and  potentially affordable oral cholera vaccines is important, however it is imperative that this approach is complementary to, and should not substitute for, effective prevention and control measures; particularly safe water and sanitation," said Dr. Winder.

Water, sanitation and hygiene are critical in tackling some of the leading causes of child mortality such as diarrhea, which alone kills more children each year than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

Almost one billion people live without access to safe drinking water and some 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation.

WaterAid is an international non governmental organization focused exclusively on improving poor people’s access to safe water, improved hygiene and sanitation in developing countries.  Established in 1981, WaterAid has reached 14 million people in Africa, Asia and the Pacific Region through its work with local partner organizations using appropriate and affordable technologies that communities can operate and maintain.   WaterAid currently works in 26 countries worldwide.  To learn more, please visit www.wateraidamerica.org