Pakistan's crisis reminds us of a common killer

Sep 08, 2010


With the devastating flooding in Pakistan, health and aid officials are once again sounding the global alarm to prevent outbreaks of diarrhea.

WHO projects that up to 1.5 million cases of diarrheal diseases could occur in Pakistan over the next three months.

This same problem emerged quickly following the Haiti earthquake in January of this year, and appears every time cyclones, flooding, or earthquakes decimate a community. These crisis outbreaks of diarrhea tend to get attention, but what about the common tragedy of children dying from diarrhea every day?

Why do we ignore that diarrhea is a leading killer in low-income countries, and the second leading cause of childhood death in the world today?

These outbreaks often demonstrate an important but often overlooked public health truth: we know what it takes to control diarrheal disease, and we have the tools to do it. In Haiti, US AID mobilized to provide chlorine tablets to purify drinking water. US AID Director Shah noted, “we were able to provide more people with access to clean water than before the earthquake hit. That effort has led to real gains - already we've seen a 12% reduction in diarrheal illness in Port-au-Prince.”

The headline situations illustrate both the simplicity of the solutions to address the toll of diarrhea - as well as the lack of political will that currently exists to enact those solutions. Nearly two million children will die from diarrhea this year, most in Asia and Africa, for lack of simple health commodities.

The health community today has the ability and the know-how to drastically reduce child deaths from diarrrhea. After all, widespread access to the same basic interventions deployed during natural disasters - soap, sanitation, water purification, and oral rehydration treatment  - has successfully downgraded the threat of diarrhea in upper-income countries from deadly to inconvenient. By combining these proven solutions with new tools such as vaccines, improved formulations of oral rehydration, zinc tablets, and new water purification methods, we could instill in all parents, not just those in rich countries, the confidence that their child will not die from diarrhea.  

Today, we have new opportunities to solidify US commitment to funding for child health efforts. The President's Global Health Initiative along with pending legislation would increase funding for child health interventions, including diarrheal disease. The Paul Simon Water for the World Act is a US bill that provides funding for clean water and increased sanitation, which can make massive strides in preventing diarrhea by investing in water and sanitation interventions. Let's spread the word to policymakers here at home to pass and fund these bills so that leaders of low-income countries have the resources to deliver the proven solutions where they can do the most good. Donors and country leaders together can prevent the deaths of up to two million children each year.

We have an enormous opportunity to learn from the emergency zones of Pakistan and Haiti and to recognize diarrheal disease for what it is: a true global health crisis. The challenge facing us today is not in knowing what to do, but in doing what we know. With renewed political will and additional resources, we can ensure that millions of children in dozens of other countries no longer face the silent, but tragic, threat of diarrhea every day.


-- Eileen Quinn directs PATH's advocacy & communications on diarrheal disease.