The World Health Organization says more than 3.4 million people die every year from poor water and sanitary conditions. More than 250 million people suffer from diseases caused by dirty water every year, and 6,000 children die every day from diseases caused by contaminated water. No country in the Western Hemisphere suffers more from problems caused by contaminated water than Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere. But that could change soon, with the introduction of a new product that cleans contaminated water in just minutes.
The waiting room at the Carrefour maternity hospital is always crowded. It is a good place to find an audience receptive to a song extolling the benefits of clean drinking water.
The woman leading the sing-along at the Carrefour hospital is Amelia Shaw, a specialist on mother and child health, who also works as a journalist for international news agencies in Haiti. She is introducing a new product called PuR, or purifier of water, to those who have come to the hospital seeking help. Many of those at the hospital are bringing small children suffering from diarrhea and Amelia Shaw says the new product could save their lives.
"It is a powder that essentially purifies water," said Amelia Shaw. "It will take the dirtiest water you have ever seen and after about 25 minutes make it potable [drinkable]. It will make it potable and absolutely clear. It kills all pesticides, all microbes, everything organic from viruses to bacteria to worms. It eliminates all poisons, heavy metals, and other dangerous contaminants in water."
Supporters of such point-of-use water treatments, as they are known, have shown reductions of 30 to 50 percent in diarrheal disease, with even higher reductions during water-borne epidemics.
Diarrhea is the leading cause of death among Haitian children less than one-year old, and the second leading killer among children between the ages of one to five. A recent study found that one out of every 13 Haitian children die before they reach their first birthday and one out of 24 that survive the first year die before the age of five.
Population Services International which markets health care products in developing countries around the world on a non-profit basis, has just introduced PuR to Haiti. The product which was developed by the U.S.-based company, Proctor and Gamble has been introduced with positive results in other countries like Guatemala, The Philippines and Bangladesh, where tests show PuR substantially reduced arsenic levels in tube-well water, a major health problem for Bangladeshi's. The widespread introduction of PuR is also expected to have a positive impact on expanding oral rehydration therapy, which is used to combat diarrheal disease.
The PuR powder which comes in a small sachet, or packet, and which is sold for about eight U.S. cents, got its first test in Haiti last September when floods killed several thousand people in the Haitian city of Gonaives. Amelia Shaw says a decision was made to distribute PuR in Gonaives, even though the product was not designed for emergency use.
"This is a product that is not necessarily designed for a relief situation because you have to be able to effectively show people how to use it," she said. "So it was a big challenge in Gonaives. People in Gonaives had water everywhere. It was dirty water and it was really posing a big problem. A product like PuR, if people know what it is, and they know how to use it, can save thousands of lives. I know we did a lot of good. We had teams on the ground and we were able to work with other relief organizations in the area."
Amelia Shaw says there are four steps to preparing PuR. The powder must be stirred for five minutes until waste material in the water clumps together or coagulates. Then the clumped material must be allowed to sink to the bottom of a bucket or container. Then, the water must be filtered into another container, and then, allowed to sit for 15 minutes. If these steps are not followed correctly PuR will not work, so Amelia Shaw and her team constantly visit hospitals and clinics, where through songs and skits they show people how to use PuR, a product which she says could save many lives in coming years.
Dr. Dauphin Jean-Philippe of the Carrefour maternity hospital says he is amazed that a very simple product could have such a potential positive impact.
The Haitian doctor says he expects PuR to have a dramatic impact on people's lives because it will change the way water is used in Haiti, where only 10 percent of the population has access to clean drinking water in their homes.
Nearly two thirds of Haitians get their water either from public water fountains, which are difficult to keep clean, or from non-protected sources such as rivers and streams that are heavily polluted. Getting clean drinking water from a small package of powder, which sells for pennies, could save millions of lives now lost to contaminated water.
Photos - courtesy of PSI