Shrishita Rani is 17 years old and lives in the cholera-plagued Mirpur slum of north-western Dhaka. ”The hand water station simplifies life. It is easy to use, and it protects us from diseases like cholera and diarrhoea.“
Photo: Ylva Sörman Nath
Smart solutions in the struggle against cholera
In Bangladesh, waterborne diseases like cholera and diarrhoea take hundreds of thousands of lives every year. But mobile water stations and hygiene education can lead to significant health improvements. The research institute Icddr,b develops simple solutions to difficult problems.
Globally, 780 million people still lack access to clean water. This has devastating consequences to people’s health, and children are particularly vulnerable. One of the diseases that can spread in contaminated water is cholera, which kills at least 100,000 lives each year.
But in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the research centre Icddr,b develops simple but effective solutions. One example is mobile water stations that can be installed in all households. The water is purified from bacteria with chlorine, and the installation is combined with education on the health benefits of good hand hygiene.
Hand water stations make life easier
Shrishita Rani is 17 years old and lives in the Mirpur slum of north-western Dhaka. The area is very poor and is plagued by diseases like cholera. According to her, access to clean water is of great importance:
– The hand water station simplifies life. It is easy to use, and it protects us from diseases like cholera and diarrhoea. I remind both children and adults in the neighbourhood to wash their hands before they eat, after every toilet visit, and before they cook.
Icddr,b primarily educates the women, who then teach neighbours and family. This empowers women, but also means a more effective way of spreading of information, since it comes from a trusted source. There are also plans to let the women sell the water stations and keep part of the income, which would enable microbusinesses and create incentives for spreading them at the grass root level.
The innovation has led to a decrease in the prevalence of cholera and diarrhoea. According to Dr. Anne Tuiskunen Bäck at Sida, it has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.
– Water is essential. We use water for cooking, drinking, cleaning and washing dishes. Try living one day without water. The people of Bangladesh are facing the impossible choice between letting their children go thirsty and possibly infecting them with cholera. This tiny molecule is the foundation for all life.
A holistic approach to cholera
Cholera is a waterborne and very infectious disease that dwells in areas with limited access to clean water. The bacteria colonize the inside of the small intestine, and exude a toxin that causes the characteristically watery diarrhoeas, which in turn cause dehydration. Without care, the disease can lead to death within a few hours. There is an effective vaccine called Dukoral. However, it is too expensive for the poor, and is mostly used by tourists.
Icddr,b is among the world leaders in cholera research. Together with Swedish researchers and other partners, they have developed the cholera vaccine Shanchol. It is far cheaper to manufacture, and has the potential to save many lives.
The vaccine does provide 100 percent protection, and they therefore conducted a study in order to see if the addition of water purification and hand hygiene can reduce the number of cholera cases even further. With 240,000 participants, this was the world’s largest cholera study.
– Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest countries, yet they have some of the world’s greatest cholera experts. When an epidemic breaks out, like on Haiti 2010 or in Sierra Leone 2012, Icddr,b immediately sends a team. They have a holistic approach and weigh in cultural and economic factors with local knowledge, while we tend to put our faith in magic pills. They are truly heroes. At the same time, this is just a step on the way while waiting for infrastructural efforts that can solve the problem more thoroughly.
Swedish support to Icddr,b
Icddr,b is a research institute based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. They are world leaders in cholera research, and besides the vaccine and water stations, they have developed several innovations in order to fight cholera. Sweden has cooperated with Icddr,b since 1981, and contributes with 24 million SEK in the period 2012-2016.
Icddr,b was acknowledged in the Al Jazeera documentary Dhaka’s Cholera Wars, which in part took place at the organization’s hospital in Dhaka. Watch it here.