March 20, 2014 |

How water can help douse 2 childhood killers

Water can save lives, but it can also take them. Find out how unsafe water is connected to the two biggest killers of young children: diarrhea and pneumonia.
A woman washes an infant next to a water pump.
Clean water can help lessen the threat of pneumonia and diarrheal disease, the two top killers of young children. Photo: PATH/Heng Chivoan.

This post originally appeared on The Guardian‘s Global Development Professionals Network partner zone.

At a fundamental level, a deluge is a collection of single drops of water. But ultimately its power comes from cohesion—the common purpose of countless individual drops together forming a groundbreaking force. On Saturday, the global development community will celebrate the power of water, marking World Water Day 2014 under this year’s banner of water and energy.

Water is powerful in any form—whether as a force of nature or a simple, clean glass to drink. Water can save lives, but it can also take them. When water is unsafe, communities struggle with disease—particularly childhood diarrhea.

A deadly combination: diarrhea and pneumonia

Cohesion and collaboration are pivotal if we are to advance efforts to protect those who face a deadly threat from unsafe water. Integrating clean water with other lifesaving tools is at the heart of our efforts to save children’s lives from diseases that are all too common in vulnerable communities and that comprise the top two threats to children worldwide: diarrheal disease and pneumonia.

The vast majority of deaths from diarrhea and pneumonia occur in low-resource countries like Cambodia, where poor sanitary conditions, dependence on unsafe water, and limited access to lifesaving treatment place families at high risk. But children in Cambodia are today realizing the promise of powerful cohesion. A pilot project led by PATH, the US-based nongovernmental organization where I work, and the government of Cambodia is equipping health workers in Kampong Thom Province with comprehensive insight and simple yet powerful tools for preventing and treating diarrhea and pneumonia in rural villages.

Cross-cutting preventive strategies

Village health workers guide families in cross-cutting preventive strategies that tackle both diseases, including safe water and sanitation at home, exclusive breastfeeding, hand-washing with soap, proper nutrition, and immunization. Treatment options in rural communities have expanded with health worker training and provision of urgent rehydration and zinc to treat diarrhea and appropriate antibiotics for pneumonia.

Broadening awareness through advocacy

Advocacy at the national level is broadening awareness of the burden of diarrhea and pneumonia as well as prevention and treatment tools. PATH has worked with the Ministry of Health to strengthen the policy environment so that effective interventions and reliable supplies are available in public and private health sectors, and to allow frontline health workers to provide clinical interventions throughout their villages.

The combination of proven interventions for both prevention and treatment, plus a focus beyond single-disease solutions, can achieve powerful impact in global child health. By harnessing expertise internally and externally, building bridges between partners in public and private sectors, and streamlining innovation and advocacy, we can overcome the biggest—and most solvable—threats to child health.

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