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Bangladesh (Disease)



Doctor George Fuchs

Just after the rainy season, Bangladesh suffers from major outbreaks of Cholera. The conditions are perfect to allow cholera and other organisms to thrive.

"The ambient temperature is sufficiently warm," explains Dr. George Fuchs. "The amount of water in the atmosphere, all create an environment that allows cholera to flourish."

"We see about 120,000 patients a year," he says. "So I think that it's pretty apparent that Bangladesh has the highest rates of cholera in the world. So this is a perfect place for us to study this severe illness."

During the rainy season, hospitals look more like battlefields littered with casualties of war. A converted hallway serves as a ward during peak time for Cholera patients. It's here that Doctor George Fuchs has devoted his career to fighting the disease and learning how to help cure its victims. It is his perseverance and the dedication of others like him helps maintains hope for the prevention and cure of Cholera in Bangladesh.


Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute

The estimate is that there are 250 million cases of water-related diseases a year. Three to five million people die a year, 20 or 30,000 perhaps a day, from water-related diseases that we know how to prevent, that are easy to prevent and to cure, but that we failed to prevent.

Violence | Disease

Today, unclean water is the dominant factor in places suffering from poverty, overcrowding, and the spread of infectious disease in places where a toilet is just a hole in the ground. Nowhere is this more evident than Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries on Earth.

Located in South Asia, it is virtually surrounded by India, with the Bay of Bengal to the south and the Himalayas, the world's highest mountain range, looming to the north. Here over 135 million people live in a country the size of New York State. With more than nine million crowded into the capital, Dhaka, the city is struggling to enter the 21st century.

Clean water and sanitation are rare commodities and disease is rampant, especially for children.

Each day thousands pour into Dhaka from the countryside, nearly all come in search of a better quality of life. For most, the city has little to offer. This is a place whose fragile infrastructure is squeezed hard by the dispossessed and poor. Clean water and sanitation are rare commodities and disease is rampant, especially for children.

Child with protective mark

Child with protective mark

There's an ancient superstition that a black circle painted on a child's face will ward off disease and sometimes even death. It's a commonly practiced custom. Yet, over nine percent of children born in Bangladesh die before the age of five. Each year the disease strikes nearly half a million Bangladeshis and claims 25,000 lives.

Epidemics in Bangladesh are annual events, tied to the seasonal ebb and flow of water. This is a part of the world defined by water. And at its heart is a great river estuary, a complex highway of rivers and streams rising in India and the Himalayas that slowly make their way into the Bay of Bengal. In the rural countryside and in the thousands of small villages, nearly everything revolves around water. Here, the daily fabric of life hasn't changed in decades. But there is one other constant; most of the land is just a few feet above sea.

With almost 70 million at risk, the people of Bangladesh now face the largest mass poisoning in history.

For two months each year monsoons sweep across the Bay of Bengal and flood much of Bangladesh, leaving tens of millions homeless. When the waters recede, nearly every river and pond is tainted with the deadly cholera bacterium.

To ease the problem of cholera, the government drilled five million wells to provide clean drinking water for 97 percent of the rural population. This simple act may have saved millions of lives, but it also resulted in an unforeseen public health disaster.

Not long ago, rural health workers reported signs of a mysterious ailment. Villagers were developing skin lesions often followed by nausea and hemorrhaging. These are the signs of arsenic poisoning, a slow acting but fatal disease for which there is no cure.

Village water pump

Village water pump

It turns out that much of Bangladesh's underground water supply contains naturally occurring arsenic. With almost 70 million at risk, the people of Bangladesh now face the largest mass poisoning in history. Lack of clean water leaves people with very few choices. It's one of the world's biggest killers.

With a patience forged by the seasonal rhythms of an ancient landscape, the people of Bangladesh struggle with waterborne diseases.



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