Why We Need to Defeat Cholera

Ed note. I am pleased to welcome Alexandra Duszak to UN Dispatch. Alexandra is a reporter at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.

Infectious diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and cholera are all but unheard of in most developed countries, but they are a devastating feature of daily life in many parts of the developing world. Cholera, a bacterial infection that causes severe diarrhea and has the potential to kill within hours if left untreated, is currently endemic in many countries, and outbreaks can easily spiral out of control. A report published in the World Health Organization’s Bulletin this month found that worldwide, more than 1.4 billion people are at risk of contracting the disease, and more than 50 percent of them live in southeast Asia. The entire population of Bangladesh—more than 161 million people—is at risk of contracting cholera.

The United Nations has taken note, and has set up its Millenium Development Goals as drivers to increase access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. The U.N. celebrated the achievement of its safe drinking water target just a few weeks ago. But along with its celebratory report, the U.N. admitted its goal of halving the number of people without access to basic sanitation seems out of reach. It’s a tough bar to meet—good sanitation is a rare commodity in the urban slums that are some of the most densely populated but sparsely served regions of the world, and it can be easily compromised by natural disasters like the flooding in Pakistan and the earthquake in Haiti.

Access to safe water and basic sanitation has been on the U.N.’s books as a fundamental right since 2010, but there are more tangible reasons that inadequate access to sanitation is an issue. Poor sanitation is a true hindrance to economic development: Outbreaks of cholera keep healthcare costs high, negatively affect productivity and discourage tourism—a key source of revenue in many developing countries. In India, the economic burden of cholera is estimated to be $53.8 billion dollars annually, or 6.4 percent of GDP. The WHO report speculates that only 5 to 10 percent of cholera cases are reported, in part because reports of cholera drive away tourists and trade partners alike.

The health of a population and its economic success work in tandem; reducing incidences of cholera through improved sanitation, vaccination and proper treatment will improve the economic well-being of a population. As long as the MDG sanitation target remains out of reach, economic development will continue to lag.