May 28, 2005

One Reason Why We Live Longer

Because we in developing nations have had clean water for so long, it isn't surprising that some of the effects of contaminated water might have escaped our notice. But a long term study of Canadians who suffered from an E. coli outbreak due to sewage seeping into their local water supply indicates that the health effects can be serious and persist for years.

... The Walkerton Health Study, formed to track the results of the outbreak, followed 1,958 adults with no previous known high blood pressure or kidney disease for about four years.

In that period, nearly 36 per cent of those who showed severe symptoms during the outbreak were diagnosed with high blood pressure, compared with 32 per cent of those with moderate symptoms and 27 per cent of those with none, the group reported. The trend with reduced kidney function was similar and the differences between the groups were statistically significant, it said. ...

Now I wonder if the public services that provide clean water are included when Republicans talk about their favorite boogeyman, the Big Government.

An important factor in longevity, major increases in which were seen before our current avalanche of new miracle pharmaceuticals, is improved public health. Public. As in for everybody. When the water isn't poisoning people, when sewage is carried away from populated areas, when immunizations prevent major epidemics and governments work to prevent the spread of disease in the first place, the benefits flow to everyone. Our bodies, subjected to the indignities of fewer microscopic invaders, tend to last longer and function better.

Even mild infections can increase the risk of heart attack, and the Walkerton results indicate that other body systems may be damaged permanently by severe infection. More seriously, infections by bacteria and other parasites can in certain cases cause cancer.

These health threats are not best fought on a mass scale by investing in new treatments for heart disease and cancer, though these are useful therapies on their own merits. The best way to combat them is to aggressively institute public sanitation and combat infectious disease epidemics even if the affected individuals can't pay for treatment. The 'six degrees of separation' principle ensures that virulent infections won't stay in the neighborhoods they're most likely to spring up in.

And really, if someone can't pay to treat an E. coli infection, they probably can't afford to treat a chronic heart condition or cancer, either. Society at large will either pay for their emergency room visits or for their loss as a productive member of society, and likely the reduced productivity of their family members. There's the suffering angle as well, but this society's decision makers have long ceased to care about that.

Of course, there's really no conceivable way that private industry could make a direct profit from providing these valuable economic services for everyone, because the largest benefits to the public are often derived from providing them to individuals who are least likely to be able to pay up. Sounds like a job for a government.

Posted by natasha at May 28, 2005 01:44 AM | Health/Medicine/Health Care | Technorati links |

This is especially interesting because of the African AIDS issue. We have millions of Africans susceptible to the diseases associated with AIDS - a much, much higher rate than that in the US.

It's been suggested that it would be far cheaper and more effective, instead of shipping drugs to Africa, to set up the villages affected with water filtration systems. Right now, the pharmaceutical companies are making billions a year on drugs that are ineffective at stemming the spread.

Posted by: Ben Schiendelman at May 29, 2005 12:02 PM

LIVING DOWNSTREAM-by SANDRA STEINGRABER- a scientist's personal investigation of cancer and the environment, continues to remind me that it is the most basic changes in our food and water that cause our problems and to fix the problem we must start in the beginning not at the end(ie. cancer treatments). This is a great book and so is WHEN SMOKE RAN LIKE WATER by DEVRA DAVIS. The website OUR STOLEN FUTURE continues to update info on toxic effects on our lives. Thanks for all the info you post.

Posted by: sam at May 30, 2005 05:12 AM