A look at the most common illnesses that kill people in the developing world
reveals, for the most part, easily preventable and/or treatable diseases and conditions, highlighting the deep disparities between health systems in rich and poor countries. But many of the causes and solutions to these common diseases are also linked to political and environmental factors as well as economic.
Cholera: “A disease of poverty”
Ten months after the earthquake that killed more than 230,000 people, Haiti is facing yet another disaster – a cholera outbreak. The current health crisis highlights broader structural and political issues that have plagued Haiti for years.
Cholera, an intestinal infection caused by bacteria-contaminated food or water, causes severe diarrhea and dehydration, but with quick and effective treatment, less than one percent of symptomatic people die according to the World Health Organization. According to BBC, as of November 15, more than 14,000 people have been hospitalized and over 900 deaths have been attributed to cholera in Haiti thus far.
Even before the earthquake, conditions in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, were bleak. The country has very high maternal and child mortality rates (again, highest in the Western hemisphere), and is in the midst of an ongoing environmental crisis, due to deforestation, soil loss, and flooding.
Less than 40 percent of the Haitian population has access to appropriate sanitation facilities and clean water is scarce, according to UNICEF. Displacement, rapid population growth, and destroyed infrastructure in the wake of the earthquake exacerbated already poor conditions and public health officials warned of the increased risk of cholera and other diarrheal diseases after the disaster.
Today these fears have become reality. While public health messages urging Haitians to wash their hands, boil drinking water, and use oral rehydration salts are working to control the current outbreak, long-term solutions to prevent future outbreaks will require much more systematic changes.
As Partners in Health Chief Medical Officer Joia Mukherjee puts it, cholera is “a disease of poverty.” Citing a joint report from Partners in Health and the Robert Kennedy Center for Human Rights, Mukherjee notes that in 2000, loans from the Inter-American Development Bank to improve water, sanitation, and health (including the public water supply in the Artibonite Valley, where the cholera outbreak originated) were blocked for political reasons by the U.S. government, in an effort to destabilize former President Aristide.
The failure of the international community to assist Haiti in developing a safe water supply, writes Mukherjee, has been a violation of the basic human right to water. To halt the current cholera epidemic and prevent future outbreaks, providing water security must become a priority in the reconstruction efforts of the international community.
Politics and Polio
Recent reports have indicated that the global incidence of polio, a highly infectious, crippling, and potentially fatal virus, is significantly declining and a new vaccine is renewing hopes of eradication. Nigeria, one of the few countries where polio continues to be endemic, has also made major progress over the last few years.
But the situation was very different just a few years ago. In 2003 religious and political leaders in Northern Nigeria banned federally sponsored polio immunization campaigns, citing “evidence” that the polio vaccine was contaminated with anti-fertility drugs intended to sterilize Nigerian women. The boycott led to an outbreak of the disease that spread to 20 countries and caused 80 percent of the world’s cases of polio during the length of the ban, according to a study in Health Affairs.
While the boycott was eventually stopped through the combined efforts of local, national, and pressure, the boycott serves as a useful reminder that global health problems can have political, rather than biological or behavioral, origins.
Combating Climate Change and Pneumonia
Studies from the World Health Organization indicate that exposure to unprocessed solid fuels increases pneumonia risk in children by a factor of 1.8, but today more than three billion people globally continue to depend on coal and biomass fuels for their cooking and heating needs.
Cooking and heating with these fuels creates levels of indoor air pollution that are up to 20 times higher than accepted WHO guidelines, putting people at considerable risk for lower respiratory infections. Women, who are often responsible for collecting fuel and performing household tasks like cooking, and their children, are particularly at risk. Today, exposure to indoor air pollution is responsible for 1.6 million deaths globally including more than 900,000 of the two million annual deaths from pneumonia in children under five years old, representing the most important cause of death in this age group.
A recent study from The Lancet shows improved cooking stoves could simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the global burden of disease caused by indoor air pollution in developing countries. Such an intervention, the authors argue, could have substantial benefits for acute lower respiratory infection in children, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and ischemic heart disease. The potential health benefits don’t stop there: fuel-efficient stoves can also improve the security of women and children in conflict zones and decrease the risk of burns while improving local air quality.
There would be significant environmental benefits as well. A World Wildlife Fund project in Nepal, which provided loans to purchase biogas units and build improved cookstoves, curbed deforestation for firewood and grazing as well as reduced the incidence of severe cases of acute respiratory infection among under-five children.
Overall, greater access to modern cooking fuels and improved cooking stoves in the developing world could both mitigate climate change and make significant contributions to MDGs 4 & 5, which focus on the reduction of child and maternal mortality.
Prescription for Change
The international community’s experience with cholera in Haiti, polio in Nigeria, and pneumonia around the world shows that health issues in developing countries rarely occur in a vacuum. As these three cases demonstrate, politics, environmental, and structural issues, for better or worse, play an important role in health affairs in the developing world. Yet efforts to combat these conditions often focus only on prevention and treatment.
Antibiotics and vaccines alone cannot provide solutions to these problems. Employing economic, diplomatic and policy tools to address health and development challenges can save lives. More specifically, public health efforts should not only focus on poverty reduction, but also target environmental, political, and structural issues that contribute to disease globally.
Sources: BBC, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, CIA World Factbook, Health Affairs, The Lancet, Scientific American, UNICEF, United Nations, USAID, World Health Organization, and World Wildlife Fund.
Photo Credit: “Lining up for vaccination,” courtesy of flickr user hdptcar.