The Most Common Waterborne Diseases: Understanding and Prevention

Most Common Waterborne Diseases: Causes, Symptoms, Prevention

Waterborne diseases, caused by harmful microorganisms and contaminants in water, pose a significant and urgent global public health challenge. Every year, millions of lives are impacted by these diseases, emphasising the critical need to comprehend their causes, symptoms, and prevention strategies. Particularly in developing nations, waterborne diseases loom as a grave threat, accounting for a staggering 80% of all illnesses and a third of all deaths, as estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF. The WHO further reveals that an alarming 88% of all waterborne illnesses can be attributed to poor hygiene practices, inadequate sanitation facilities, and unsafe water supplies. By delving into the most common waterborne diseases and exploring effective preventive measures, we can strive to protect global health and ensure widespread access to clean and safe water.

What are the causes of waterborne diseases?

Waterborne diseases stem from the presence of pathogenic microorganisms and contaminants in water sources. The causes of these diseases are multifaceted, including:

  • Microbial Contamination: Water can become contaminated with bacteria, viruses, and parasites, giving rise to diseases like cholera, typhoid fever, hepatitis A, giardiasis, and cryptosporidiosis. These microorganisms infiltrate water sources through various means, such as sewage and faecal matter from humans and animals.
  • Inadequate Sanitation: Insufficient sanitation facilities, such as the lack of toilets and proper wastewater management systems, contribute to water source contamination. Improper disposal of human waste and the absence of treatment facilities allow pathogens to enter the water supply.
  • Contaminated Drinking Water: Drinking water that undergoes inadequate treatment or lacks proper disinfection can harbour harmful microorganisms.
    Contaminated Drinking Water
  • Agricultural Runoff: The use of fertilisers, pesticides, and animal waste in agriculture can result in runoff that carries bacteria and chemicals into nearby water bodies. This runoff contaminates water sources, posing a potential risk of waterborne diseases.
  • Industrial Discharges: Industrial activities can release pollutants and toxic substances into water sources, posing health risks to humans. Chemical contaminants from industrial discharges can contaminate water, contributing to the development of waterborne diseases.
  • Natural Disasters: Natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, and other catastrophic events can lead to water source contamination with pathogens and pollutants. Disrupted sanitation systems and compromised infrastructure further exacerbate the risk of waterborne diseases during these events.

Did you know that every day, over 3,000 people die in India as a result of drinking contaminated water?

Symptoms of waterborne diseases

Symptoms of waterborne diseases can vary depending on the specific disease and the individual’s immune system. However, some common symptoms associated with waterborne diseases include:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain and cramps
  • Fever
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Jaundice
  • Skin rashes
  • Respiratory symptoms (coughing, difficulty breathing, sore throat)

It is advised to seek medical attention immediately in case of any of the above mentioned symptoms.

Common waterborne diseases

Some of the most common waterborne diseases are:

  • Cholera
    Cholera, caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, is a severe diarrheal disease that can result in dehydration and even death if untreated. It is mainly transmitted through contaminated water and food. Cholera outbreaks often occur in areas with poor sanitation and limited access to clean water. Symptoms include profuse, watery diarrhoea, vomiting, and leg cramps. Immediate rehydration is crucial, and treatment of waterborne diseases like cholera may involve antibiotics.
  • Typhoid Fever
    Typhoid fever is caused by the bacterium Salmonella typhi and spreads through the ingestion of contaminated food and water. This disease is prevalent in regions with inadequate sanitation and hygiene practices. Symptoms include a high fever, headache, abdominal pain, and a distinctive rose-coloured rash. Prompt medical treatment with antibiotics is necessary to prevent complications and reduce the risk of spreading the infection.
  • Hepatitis A
    Hepatitis A is a viral infection that affects the liver and is transmitted by consuming contaminated water and food. Poor sanitation and personal hygiene contribute to its spread. Symptoms include fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain, jaundice, and dark urine. Hepatitis A can be prevented through vaccination and practising good hygiene, such as proper handwashing.
  • Giardiasis
    Giardiasis is caused by the parasite Giardia lamblia and is one of the most common waterborne diseases worldwide. It is transmitted by ingesting water contaminated with the parasite. Symptoms include diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, bloating, and weight loss. Treatment involves antiparasitic medications and maintaining personal and environmental hygiene.
  • Leptospirosis
    Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection transmitted through contact with water or soil contaminated by the urine of infected animals. It can cause a range of symptoms, including a high fever, severe headaches, muscle aches, and abdominal pain. Preventing leptospirosis involves minimising exposure to contaminated water and practising good hygiene. Avoiding contact with potentially contaminated sources and controlling the rodent population can help reduce the risk of infection.
  • Botulism
    Botulism is a rare but serious illness caused by the Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which produces a neurotoxin that affects the nervous system. There are three main types: foodborne, wound, and infant botulism. Foodborne botulism occurs when contaminated food is consumed, leading to symptoms such as blurred vision, difficulty speaking and swallowing, and muscle weakness. Wound botulism occurs when the wound gets infected with bacteria, while infant botulism affects infants who consume spores of the bacteria. Early diagnosis and treatment with antitoxin are crucial for managing botulism, and safe food handling practices are essential to preventing its occurrence.
  • Cryptosporidiosis
    Cryptosporidiosis is caused by the protozoan parasite Cryptosporidium, which spreads through contaminated water or food and direct contact with infected individuals or animals. Symptoms include watery diarrhoea, stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting. While most cases resolve without treatment, immune-compromised individuals may experience severe symptoms. Prevention involves proper water treatment, filtration, and hygiene practices.
  • Amoebiasis
    Amoebiasis, caused by the protozoan parasite Entamoeba histolytica, is a significant cause of diarrheal illness worldwide. It is transmitted by ingesting water or food contaminated with faecal matter containing the parasite. Symptoms range from mild diarrhoea to severe dysentery with bloody stools. Antiparasitic medications are used for treatment, and practising good hygiene is crucial for prevention.

Prevention of Waterborne Diseases

Prevention plays a crucial role in mitigating the impact of waterborne diseases. Consider implementing the following essential strategies:

  • Ensuring Safe Water Sources: Take measures to guarantee access to clean and uncontaminated water by employing methods such as boiling, filtration, or chemical disinfection.
  • Enhancing Sanitation: Improve sanitation facilities to prevent the contamination of water sources by both human and animal waste.
  • Promoting Hygiene Practices: Encourage proper handwashing using soap and clean water, particularly before handling food and after using the toilet.

Promoting Hygiene Practices

  • Staying Vaccinated: Stay updated with recommended vaccinations for specific waterborne diseases like hepatitis A, effectively reducing the risk of infection.
  • Education and Awareness: Raise awareness regarding the causes, symptoms, and prevention strategies of waterborne diseases. Educate communities on the critical importance of clean water, sanitation, and adopting good hygiene practices.
  • Regular Testing: Conduct routine tests on water sources to detect and address microbial contamination, ensuring the safety of the water supply.
  • Proper Food Handling: Adhere to proper food safety practices, including thorough cooking, safe storage, and avoidance of consuming raw or undercooked foods, especially in areas with limited sanitation facilities.
  • Travel Precautions: Exercise caution when travelling to regions with a high prevalence of waterborne diseases. Avoid consuming tap water, ice cubes, and raw or uncooked foods. Opt for bottled water or appropriately treated water as a safer alternative.

Lastly, it is important that we equip ourselves with knowledge regarding the most prevalent waterborne infections, including their causes, symptoms, and preventive strategies. By implementing effective preventive measures such as ensuring equitable access to clean water, enhancing sanitation facilities, promoting optimal hygiene practices, adopting safe food handling techniques, and raising awareness about these diseases, we have the power to make a substantial impact on public health. Let us come together and strive towards a future where clean and safe water is not merely an aspiration but a tangible reality for every individual. We can create a society where people’s health is protected and free from the constant threat of waterborne illnesses by emphasising prevention, education, and proactive actions.


About Author –

Dr. Hari Kishan Boorugu, Consultant Physician & Diabetologist, Yashoda Hospitals, Hyderabad

Dr. Hari Kishan Boorugu General Medicine

Dr. Hari Kishan Boorugu

MD, DNB (Internal Medicine), CMC, Vellore
Consultant Physician & Diabetologist

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