May 26, 2011

WaterAid Urges World Health Assembly to Address Waterborne Diseases

Organization calls for resolution to prioritize access to clean water and sanitation

WaterAid called on the World Health Assembly in Geneva to take steps to end the world water crisis and end debilitating diseases, the organization said.

According to WaterAid, the world is on the verge of eradicating dracunculiasis, a waterborne parasitic disease caused by guinea worm. The disease 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," said 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 ingested, the parasite grows up to 3 ft 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 can prevent those affected from working or attending school.

WaterAid called on Member States at last 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.

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," Winder said. "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 was due to be discussed and approved by the Assembly last 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," Winder said.