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PLOS BLOGS Speaking of Medicine and Health

Water and Sanitation: Not Glamorous, but Critical

Maggie Brown, MS, ELS, is Senior Production Editor at PLoS.

Current efforts toward delivering lifesaving medicines and other interventions to developing countries are exciting and in many cases impressive in their outcomes. But for many of the diseases that affect billions of people globally, the success of these efforts will be greatly diminished without something quite simple and unexciting: safe drinking water and good hygiene.

Some sobering numbers:

  • Estimates range between 1.8 million and 2.2 million people die every year from diarrheal diseases; 90% are children under the age of 5 [WHO 2004; WHO/UNICEF 2005].
  • 88% of diarrheal disease is related to unsafe water supplies, inadequate sanitation, and poor hygiene [WHO 2004].
  • As of 2002, 1.1 billion (17%) of the world’s population had no access to improved water sources, and 2.6 billion (42%) had no access to improved sanitation

In addition to diarrheal diseases, deficient water and sanitation systems contribute to global morbidity and mortality from malaria, trachoma, schistosomiasis, intestinal helminths, and many others.

In fact, many big organizations recognize this reality. The UN has designated 2005-2015 the Water for Life decade and 2008 the International Year of Sanitation; WHO includes water and sanitation as core parts of several of its Millennium Development Goals (e.g., Target 10 of Goal 7) and has an extensive program – Water, Sanitation and Health – dealing with this complex issue.

PLoS Medicine and other PLoS journals are actively seeking to be part of the solution by publishing papers directly or indirectly related to this topic. A few examples :


WHO (2004) Water, sanitation and hygiene links to health – Facts and figures updated November 2004.

WHO/UNICEF (2005) Water for Life.

  1. It is THE greatest public health issue on the planet. It will be exacerbated by warmer climate and population growth, which in combination will decrease per capita availability of fresh water (potable or otherwise). Making water safe to drink is relatively inexpensive but given that water distribution systems are not wide spread, water santization systems will need to be provided to families/households. Building a sanitizer that will cost less than $5 should be the next space-race.

  2. I enjoyed this blog entry. I also think that the toilet-sanitation issue, like so many environmental issues, is just not “sophisticated” enough to capture the liberal media attention. If it doesn’t involve some fancy technological fix, or elaborate new theory, or end-of-world scenario, then oddly it’s not deemed worth attention. The worst (and most easily fixed) problems just aren’t “sexy” enough, which I suppose is why they never get fixed!

    Dirty drinking water still is the number one killer in the world.

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