News / Health

Simple Questions Can Help Stop Killer Disease

Map of Botswana, Africa
Map of Botswana, Africa

Multimedia

Audio
Joe DeCapua
Diarrheal disease is one of the leading killers of young children in Africa. While more countries are using vaccines to help prevent outbreaks, health officials are often unable to track down the source of outbreaks when they do occur. Now, researchers believe they can change that.


In Botswana’s Chobe District – about 1,500 kilometers north of the capital Gaborone – there are only five doctors for 23,000 people. So when there’s an outbreak of diarrheal disease, doctors and nurses spend most of their time treating the sick, not learning the epidemiology of the outbreak – the who, what, when, where, why and how of the disease.

Kathleen Alexander is an associate professor at Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources -- and has worked in Africa for more than 20 years. She said usually in diarrheal outbreaks health officials have little information.

“Outside of numbers – the number of children that are affected – we generally know very little if anything at all about why they have diarrhea, which agent is responsible. What are the socio-economic circumstances? I mean there have been studies that link certain factors to diarrheal disease broadly, but when you start talking about Namibia, Botswana, many places in Africa, and trying to look at why certain diarrheal outbreaks were thought to have occurred, there won’t be any information on the patients – other than sex, age and outcome. Were they discharged or did they get hospitalized? Did they die?”

But Alexander and her colleagues have discovered that a few simple questions can yield a lot of information – information that can save lives. They developed a short questionnaire for patients at Chobe District’s Kasane Primary Hospital, a 29-bed facility built in 1962.

“Understanding where the exposure to water borne pathogens is occurring, or food, or is it flies. There are so many contributing factors that if you can’t get to more of that patient-related data you won’t really understand where the risk is and then what to do about it,” she said.

If there’s a disease outbreak in the United States, the CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has experienced staff and the best equipment to locate the source and recommend action. Alexander said things are different in remote, rural Botswana.

“There’s this big push to go towards hi-tech tools,” she said, “but at the end of the day they’re not going to work in these types of environment. And that’s the place that we really need to understand. This place where lots of disease is happening, lots of diarrheal disease, in particular, and we still know nothing about it because we’re waiting for more sophisticated studies to happen.”

But if you simply ask patients if they drank water from the river and they say no, then odds are the river water is not the source of the pathogen. If you ask whether they’ve seen many standing pools of dirty water and they say, yes, that can be a vital clue. Do villages use pit latrines or running water? Are only children affected or adults, too? Have there been water shortages? The patients can provide that information and more.

Alexander said, “In places in Africa where we have larger issues with water quality, those infections can be quite significant. So, for example, in 2006 there was a lot of rain in Botswana and in a period of less than three months over 500 children died related to a diarrheal disease. That’s a lot.”

Alexander said using a simple patient survey is an “important starting point”… that “does not require “increased human or economic resources or outside researchers.” She added, “It can give immediate insight into public health threats and disease outbreaks.”

What’s more, Alexander said waiting for complex health studies in remote areas only widens the health gap between developing and developed nations.

You May Like

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

Russia’s Prosecutor General to Review Legality of Baltics Independence

Move, announced Tuesday, has alarmed Baltic States and strained even further their increasingly tense ties with Moscow More

US Urged to Keep Up Pressure on Cuba Rights

Communist government continues to hold dozens of political prisoners, tightly restricts freedom of expression, uses threats, intimidation to discourage critics, according to activist groups More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Interneti
X
Mike O'Sullivan
June 30, 2015 8:20 PM
Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.

VOA Blogs