Think of Haiti’s dead and sick on World Toilet Day

It’s World Toilet Day and the blogosphere is all abuzz with humorous talk of toilets, interesting factoids (e.g., more people have cell phones than they do access to toilets) and those calling an end to this “crappy problem.”

Every day is World “Something” Day and such Hallmark Card attempts to promote a cause usually pass by ignored. But toilets are, for some reason, entertaining.

Everybody poops,” begins ONE’s blog, before launching into a more serious discussion of the problem.

There’s even a new documentary with the entertaining title of “World Toilet Crisis” that Seattle-based PATH co-sponsored (and here’s a PATH post for toilet day). The documentary is entertaining, in a way, but also disturbing. It just smacks you upside the face. Be warned!

The issue, of course, is not about getting more bathroom fixtures to poor people. As the unfolding crisis in Haiti illustrates, the crux of the problem is that many communities lack access to clean water and proper sanitation facilities. It’s largely an infrastructure, a public health and municipal systems, problem.

As MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders reports, the spread of cholera in Haiti is now expected to sicken 200,000 and perhaps kill nearly 5,000. Haitians are angry at a team of UN peacekeepers for allegedly importing the bacterial disease, but it is Haiti’s lack infrastructure that has caused this problem:

Improved sanitation and water systems could have prevented this outbreak, and could prevent many more like it that keep happening elsewhere (but with much less media attention). Some experts estimate making basic sanitation improvements could prevent as many as 2 million deaths per year. What’s happening in Haiti is, unfortunately, a common occurrence in poor communities worldwide.

One of the many toilet Tweeters referred people to a great historical link at Wikipedia describing London’s Great Stink of 1858. That was a smelly episode, in one of the world’s most “modern” cities at the time, caused by the fact that Londoners were still disposing of their fecal matter in a fairly disgusting manner.

That was four years after Dr. John Snow had discovered contaminated water in London had caused a massive cholera outbreak. The germ theory had not yet been adopted, however, and few at the time believed Snow. He died the year of the Great Stink.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom-at-humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.