one of the most prevalent killers in the world today. The World Health Organisation even goes so far as to label them the leading cause of death around the globe, with more than 3.5 million people losing their lives in this fashion each year¹. Over 750 million people lack access to clean water supplies, and while India isn’t the worst hit country, around 80% of the nation’s deaths are related to waterborne diseases. Here’s a look at the worst killers.
Diarrhea is perhaps the biggest threat in India, and kills up to 1600 people a day, with children under the age of 5 particularly at risk². It is spread by contact with water containing multiple viruses and unfortunately, most supplies are contaminated from sewage and agricultural runoff, as the country’s rapidly expanding population puts more and more pressure on natural resources. Not helping matters are the increasing numbers of devastating floods which ravage the country and surrounding areas and which create vast areas of stagnant water as well as prevent medical services from treating the ill³.
Cholera is the next disease on the list, occurring when a person ingest water that is infected with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae and which most alarmingly can kill in just a few hours. Both adult and children are susceptible to the disease, with around 3.5 million cases reported a year, and with 100,000-130,000 of those resulting in deaths. Perhaps the biggest challenge with fighting the disease is that numerous strains of cholera have emerged, with several proving resistant to antibiotics. Long term improvement of water supplies and sanitation is the best solution to the problem, but oral cholera vaccines are also available as a short term solution.
Around 3 billion people around the globe are at risk from malaria and although India is far from the worst suffering nation, it still loses an estimated 40,000 people a year⁵. This number is significantly higher than government figures have released in the past, with official reports putting the number at just over 1000, and which highlights the fact that the problem is much greater than many want to believe. The disease is spread by mosquitoes carrying the Plasmodium parasite and which inhabit water bodies, with stagnant areas proving particularly dangerous for humans to be around. More adults than children are killed by malaria in India but perhaps the most tragic thing about malaria is that it kills millions but is entirely preventable, with such control measures as mosquito nets and preventive treatments readily available, in theory at least⁶.
Japanese encephalitis is another disease spread by mosquitoes and thanks to the prevalence of paddy fields in India, which contain the mosquitoes’ favourite breeding grounds of stagnant water, it is a worryingly widespread problem⁷. The disease was first recognized in India in 1955 but continues to be an issue today, with children most at risk, as adults develop a natural immunity⁸. Part of the problem with the disease is that the vaccine to prevent it is extremely expensive, thus putting it out of reach of those most at risk from it, while there is no cure for it once it is caught⁹.
Filariasis too is spread via mosquitoes which are hosts to a nematode worm and mostly affects people living near sewage or unclean water bodies. Around one third of all cases are reported from India and while the development of the disease is still not well understood, it is known that infection is generally acquired during childhood but which may take several years to manifest¹⁰. The symptoms of the disease are disturbing in the extreme, with infected individuals displaying grossly enlarged body parts, such as legs and arms, and which causes many to be cast aside from society, on top of the problems they already suffer from, such as an inability to work. Mass treatment programmes are in place thanks to organizations such as WHO, while detection of the disease has grown easier, due to the development of a simple test which relies only on finger-prick blood droplets, without the need for hospital visits. However, over 550 million still remain at risk¹¹.