Tag Archives: diarrhea

Deaths That Don’t Have to Happen: The Relationship Between Knowledge and Health

Editor’s note: As part of  a writing class I took this summer, I had to do a group project addressing a social issue within our society.

Part of that assignment was writing an essay that promotes activism to address the issue.The research inspired me, so I decided to share that essay with you. Hope you enjoy! 

Knowledge, and the desire to use it to better our own lives, as well as the lives of everyone else. This is what has made our species so great.

Fire, the wheel, internal plumbing, electricity, refrigeration. All of these creations were the result of intelligent people with an insatiable drive to solve major problems that affected everyone within their communities.

As the world progressed into the modern era, more and more of these advancements came from the realm of medicine. For thousands of years, smallpox was a scourge that regularly plagued populations all over the world.

A close-up of the smallpox virus. Click to enlarge. Magnification: x28,500

In the 19th century, the disease was killing 400,000 Europeans every year. In the 20th century, it accounted for an estimated 300 million deaths worldwide.

Now, consider this: the vaccine for smallpox was discovered, by a man named William Jenner, in 1796. However, it took more than 160 years for the World Health Assembly to pass a worldwide resolution to eradicate the disease in 1959, and another 20 years for the disease to be completely eradicated.

There hasn’t been a single documented death from smallpox since 1980, but it took nearly 200 years to make that happen.

Click to enlarge

Our modern world is no different. Every year, 3 million people die from vaccine-preventable diseases, half of that being children 5 years old or younger.

Other preventable diseases, like diarrhea and pneumonia, claim the lives of another 2 million children who are simply too poor to afford things like clean water and basic treatment.

If you’re keeping track, that’s 3.5 million children dying every year from basic problems that we solved ages ago. Another way to think of it: imagine every kid enrolled in public school in New York City, Los Angeles and Houston dying this year. Imagine, just for a second, all the human potential that we are losing along with these children.

I know you may be thinking that it’s somewhat inevitable that developing countries lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to new vaccines, treatments or procedures, so chew on this for a second: out of a list of 18 developed countries, the United States was at the very bottom when it came to deaths from preventable causes.

For people under the age of 75, these preventable causes account for 23% of total deaths for men and 32% of total deaths for women.

Preventable disease per 100,000 citizens. Click to enlarge

How many more people are we going to let die simply because they lack access to resources that are so plentiful that they are taken for granted by the rest of us?

We have to always remember that the position of privilege we find ourselves in only exists because someone at some point in history fought for our right to good healthcare.

So now, it is our responsibility, our duty, to use this position of privilege to extend this same basic human right to health to the countless people still living without it, not only in our country but across the globe.

Treating the “Unsexy” Diseases


(click link above for full story)

There are two kinds of drugs the major pharmaceutical companies focus on: “blockbuster” drugs for common issues (think blood pressure, cholesterol etc) that will be extremely widely used, and specialized drugs that are very specialized for a particular niche and are consequently extremely expensive. This leaves a number of “unsexy” diseases that, while still being extremely deadly, just do not have a high enough potential for profit to convince the big pharmaceuticals to tackle them.

Path is a non-profit global health organization that is working to tackle these forgotten diseases. Right now, their main focus is diarrhea. While most people in the developed world look at diarrhea as a very uncomfortable and inconvenient problem, very few people are aware that diarrhea is the 4th leading cause of death in the developing world, behind only upper respiratory infection, HIV/AIDS and malaria, killing close to 2.5 million people annually. It is the 2nd leading cause of child mortality in the world after pneumonia, with around 2/3 of the annual deaths from diarrhea occurring in children under the age of 5.

Deaths from diarrhea are actually a result of the fluid loss involved rather than from the disease itself. With this in mind, Path is working on a new class of anti-diarrheal agents called that would be able to essentially shut off the tap that controls fluid release in the intestines. Another advantage of the non-profit model is that only one part of Path is developing drugs, while other parts of the organization focus on preventative medicine practices on the ground such as improving sanitation. Co-ordinating these efforts allows the organization to really pursue a holistic approach to the “unsexy” problems of the world.

I hope the Path model can gain traction- the work they are doing is awesome!

Some more related info if you’re interested: The first chart shows the percentage of people without access to clean drinking water in different regions; the second shows the percentage of total global deaths from diarrhea by region. Note the obvious correlation.