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

Multimedia Obama, Modi Break Nuclear Deal Deadlock

Impasse over liability issues had been stalling bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation; deal reached at start of US president's three-day visit to India More

WHO's Late Efforts in Tackling Ebola Highlight Need for Reform

Health experts debate measures to reform agency’s response to global public health emergencies in special one-day session on deadly outbreak More

One Tumultuous Year in Power for CAR's President

As sectarian violence raged across Central African Republic, interim President Catherine Samba-Panza has Herculean task: to end civil war and put country back on right track More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youthi
X
Julie Taboh
January 23, 2015 11:08 PM
Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.
Video

Video US Marching Bands Grow Into a Show of Their Own

The 2014 Super Bowl halftime show was the most-watched in history - attracting an estimated 115 million viewers. That event featured pop star Bruno Mars. But the halftime show tradition started with marching bands, which still dominate the entertainment at U.S. high school and college American football games. But as Enming Liu reports in this story narrated by Adrianna Zhang, marching bands have grown into a show of their own.
Video

Video Secular, Religious Kurds Face Off in Southeast Turkey

Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast has been rocked by violence between religious and secular Kurds. Dorian Jones reports on the reasons behind the stand-off from the region's main city of Diyarbakir, which suffered the bloodiest fighting.
Video

Video Kenya: Misuse of Antibiotics Leading to Resistance by Immune System

In Kenya, the rise of drug resistant bacteria could reverse the gains made by medical science over diseases that were once treatable. Kenyans could be at risk of fatalities as a result if the power in antibiotics is not preserved. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story from Nairobi.
Video

Video Solar-Powered Plane Getting Ready to Circumnavigate Globe

Pilots of the solar plane that already set records flying without a drop of fuel are close to making their first attempt to fly the craft around the globe. They plan to do it in 25 flying days over a five month period. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video How Experts Decide Ethiopia Has the Best Coffee

Ethiopia’s coffee has been ranked as the best in the world by an international group of coffee connoisseurs. Not surprisingly, coffee is a top export for the country. But at home it is a source of pride. Marthe van der Wolf in Addis Ababa decided to find out what makes the bean and brew so special and how experts make their determinations.
Video

Video Yazidi Refugees at Center of Political Fight Between Turkey, Kurds

The treatment of thousands of Yazidis refugees who fled to Turkey to escape attacks by Islamic State militants has become the center of a dispute between the Turkish government and the country's pro-Kurdish movement. VOA's Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video World’s Richest 1% Forecast to Own More Than Half of Global Wealth

The combined wealth of the world's richest 1 percent will overtake that of the remaining 99 percent at some point in 2016, according to the anti-poverty charity Oxfam. Campaigners are demanding that policymakers take action to address the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid