Preventing Waterborne Illness Editorial
Guyana Chronicle
January 12, 2004

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THE visit yesterday to Buxton, Cane Grove and Clonbrook by a team of officials of the Ministry of Health wasn't altogether unexpected.

Flooding being one of the scourges of society that simply won't go away, it has become traditional, in the aftermath of floods, for the Ministry of Health to send personnel to monitor for waterborne illnesses.

The monitoring process is followed by the traveling of public health officials to the affected communities to distribute drugs that help to protect residents from any detected or probable waterborne diseases.

But it wasn't only public health officials who went to Buxton, Cane Grove and Clonbrook yesterday. Heading the team was acting Minister of Health Dr. Jennifer Westford.

By the residents' own account, Dr. Westford's visit demonstrated not only her personal interest in how they were coping, but also the concern that Government shows in helping victims grapple with this natural disaster.

Arguments abound in some quarters that Government isn't doing enough to prevent flooding.

Evidence indicates otherwise.

In addition to billions of dollars spent each year to improve the country's drainage and irrigation networks, Government successfully negotiated an Italian line of credit to procure almost a billion dollars of heavy earth-moving equipment to accelerate drainage and irrigation works.

An IDB-financed agriculture project and a list of other central, regional and village-level initiatives have sought and are seeking to lessen the coast's vulnerability to floods.

But because flooding is an uncontrollable natural disaster, "doing enough" entails not just spending money to enhance a community's capability to prevent or at best cushion the impact of flooding; it also has to do with the wise prioritizing of works and the effective implementation of programmes geared to guard against waterborne infections.

In the words of infectious disease experts, waterborne illnesses caused by various bacteria, viruses and protozoa usually occur as a result of inadequately treated drinking and waste water. Human symptoms for waterborne illnesses, they say, range from fever and malaise to the better-known gastro-intestinal symptoms such as diarrhea and stomach aches.

Generally, the incidence of waterborne illness is low compared to other major causes of illness. But when a natural disaster such as flood hits, waterborne agents can cause widespread illness and discomfort and in some cases, death.

The action by Dr. Webster and her team of public health officials was therefore as necessary as it is commendable.

We expect that come Budget Day 2004, Government will identify the three areas for inclusion in another phase of its on-going battle against the sea and against the rain.

We anticipate, as well, that the Environmental Protection Agency will inspect and sample the water in flood-affected areas to ensure it is safe to drink. The EPA and Guyana Water Incorporated can collaborate in checking water equipment such as pipes, storage tanks, mains and valves for breaks, cracks and failures, particularly since wells most likely to be vulnerable to bacterial contamination after flooding are shallow, have been dug or bored or have been submerged by flood water for long periods of time.

The aim must be to ensure that repairs and replacements of any faulty equipment take place quickly and that the affected communities receive a certifiably safe supply of drinking water. And thus prevent any waterborne illness.