9 Common Waterborne Diseases That Can Be Eliminated with Better Infrastructure Investment

Despite significant progress in the past few generations, waterborne illnesses remain a leading cause of illness and mortality in the Philippines. About 200,000 to 300,000 Filipinos contract a waterborne illness each year, and just under 4,000 deaths occur annually from these diseases.

Better water infrastructure has proven to be key in preventing waterborne illnesses throughout the world, and this has certainly been the case in the Philippines. The past few years have seen massive investments in city and municipal water systems, many of which have not seen major updates in half a century. 

This continuous development of water infrastructure assets has already reduced the annual deaths from waterborne diseases. However, more work will be needed before the threat of these illnesses is effectively mitigated.

Here are just some of the more common preventable waterborne illnesses that continue to threaten the Philippines, which can be all but eliminated with better water infrastructure investments:

1.) Typhoid

While rare in the industrialized world, typhoid remains common in the Philippines. The illness is primarily spread through unsafe water and poor sanitation. Additionally, typhoid is also highly contagious, making it a major threat to local communities.

2.) Cholera

Cholera remains common throughout the developing world, particularly in communities without access to clean water. It can be spread through drinking water as well as improperly prepared food. Proper handwashing, a primary means of preventing the spread of the disease, is almost impossible in communities that do not have access to sanitary water sources.

3.) Escherichia coli (E. coli) Infection

Escherichia coli is a species of bacteria that is commonly found in the gut flora of humans and animals. Most variants of Escherichia coli bacteria are harmless or beneficial to human health. However, some strains, particularly those that have evolved to live in livestock, can cause illness in humans. As with other waterborne illnesses, avoiding contact with potentially infected food and water is an essential prevention strategy.

4.) Dysentery

Dysentery is a potentially lethal illness caused by contact with unsafe water, unsanitary food sources, and a lack of access to proper handwashing solutions. Amoebiasis or amoebic dysentery is the most common form of dysentery in the Philippines.

While virtually all waterborne illnesses cause diarrhea, dysentery can cause especially severe cases, potentially causing death by dehydration.

5.) Giardia

This illness is often contracted by drinking water from untreated sources, such as ponds and rivers. While rarely lethal to adults, children in communities that have no access to clean drinking water can be especially vulnerable to it.

6.) Salmonella

Salmonella bacteria is primarily transmitted through the ingestion of food or water that has been contaminated with fecal matter. Most people are resistant to the illness but children, pregnant women, sick individuals, and older adults can be vulnerable.

Along with proper food handling, access to sanitary water and sewage systems can mostly eliminate cases of salmonella in communities.

7.) Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is commonly transmitted through unsanitary food and water sources. While there is a vaccine available, doses are not always readily available to individuals in rural communities. This makes better water infrastructure and sanitation education essential preventative strategies against the illness.

8.) Worm Infections

Worm infections are caused by the ingestion of parasitic worm eggs present in unsanitary food and water sources. Some types of infestations can also be caused by walking barefoot on soil contaminated by these eggs. While worm infections are easily treated today, they can be lethal to children and other people with weakened immune systems.

9.) Leptospirosis

Leptospirosis is spread through contact with the urine of infected animals, particularly rodents, dogs, and farm animals. The Leptospira interrogans bacteria that causes the illness lives in the kidneys of infected animals and can be transmitted to the soil when they urinate. The bacteria can also contaminate water sources and infect humans through existing cuts and wounds on their skin, as well as through contact with mucous membranes in the mouth and nose.

While leptospirosis can be spread like the other illnesses on this list, in the Philippines, the illness has been associated with floods in urban areas with poor drainage systems. Improving flood control infrastructure can, therefore, serve to reduce cases of leptospirosis during the wet season.

How Does Better Water Infrastructure Help Keep Communities Healthy?

Better water infrastructure has been proven to keep communities healthy in a number of ways:

  • Avoids cross-contamination of drinking water and sewage.Ad hoc or dilapidated water infrastructure can put communities at risk by increasing the possibility of broken sewage lines seeping into regular water supplies. Developing new infrastructure or repairing old systems can prevent this kind of cross-contamination, saving lives in the process.

  • Prevents pollution of shared waterways.Many existing water infrastructure systems release sewage and other pollutants into rivers and coastlines, jeopardizing ecosystems as well as the livelihoods of the people who rely on water resources for an income. People who consume food taken from these polluted waterways are at risk of illness as well. Improving water infrastructure systems that pollute waterways should thus be a priority.
  • Keeps industries from disrupting water supplies. Industrialization tends to make a major impact on the availability and quality of water resources. If water infrastructure is not updated to meet the needs of growing industries, communities that rely on shared water resources are often negatively impacted. Better infrastructure is, therefore, key to maintaining water quality and preventing water shortages. 
  • Allows further economic development and access to healthcare.There can be no serious economic activity without quality water infrastructure. Damaged or non-existent water systems are thus a long-term health risk as they prevent communities from achieving prosperity and accessing better healthcare options.

Water Sanitation Is Everyone’s Responsibility

Government policymakers and private infrastructure developers do have the responsibility to improve community health outcomes by building and maintaining high-quality water infrastructure. However, individuals and businesses also have a responsibility to conserve and protect existing water resources and practice good sanitation. By working together, Filipinos can maintain progress in reducing deaths from waterborne illnesses, ultimately bringing outcomes to the levels of developed countries.