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Hard-won Water: Elixir or poison?

Dr. Glenn Patterson and Dr. Melinda Laituri discuss why women and girls are the ones with the greatest exposure to water-related diseases.

Frequently at the end of the trek for water, the source is a tiny stream or a muddy puddle, open to the environment. The dual, related problems of inadequate sanitation and inadequate drinking water infrastructure are interrelated at these unprotected sources, where water is frequently impacted by pollutants

As a result, the water that is obtained at the cost of so much effort, and is intended to enhance the health of the family, winds up delivering pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and protozoa to those who drink it. This is one reason why waterborne diseases such as diarrhea are the world’s number one killer of children under the age of five, and why 70-80 percent of diseases in developing countries are related to inadequate water and sanitation.

Since women and girls are the ones who tend to have the greatest contact with the polluted water, they are also the ones with the greatest exposure to water-related diseases. In addition to illnesses, such as diarrhea, that are spread by ingestion of polluted water, water-carriers are susceptible to diseases spread by contact with the water or with vectors such as flies that breed in the water. An example is trachoma, the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness. About 80 million people in 41 countries have this disease, and about 1.9 million have been blinded by it. The rate of infection among females is several times higher than among males. The disease is caused by a bacterium, Chlamydia trachomatis, which is spread by direct contact with water or indirect contact via clothing or flies. Mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever also fall into this category, as do parasites that thrive in warm freshwater. An example of a parasitic disease spread by skin contact with polluted water is schistosomiasis, the world’s second most prevalent tropical disease after malaria. This disease is caused by a worm that is associated with freshwater snails in certain tropical countries. The worm attaches to skin that is immersed in water, penetrates the skin, infects the circulatory system, bowels, and bladder, reproduces, and causes the body to shed large numbers of worm eggs in feces.

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Water for the People: Gender, Human Rights, and Diplomacy

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