Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Something's in the water

Max Zarate-Bermudez, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cites many more cases and deaths caused by waterborne disease outbreaks than those caused by foodborne outbreaks. Still, for some unknown reason, food safety seems to be a much sexier topic, gaining a higher degree of media and public attention.

Thankfully, Wednesday morning’s session on preventing food and waterborne illness detailed efforts by CDC to build an Environmental Health Services Network, or EHS-Net, at the national level and, in the word’s of pop star Justin Timberlake, bring sexy back to environmental health.

The federal government doesn’t even have a true grasp on the actual numbers of outbreaks in the states, part of the impetus to create EHS-Net. According to Vince Radke, a sanitarian at CDC, the challenge is that each state houses multiple agencies that handle water-related issues (for example, New York has 12, nine for Tennessee). Information and data on waterborne disease is often parsed out among many agencies and utilities.

EHS-Net is working on many fronts to develop multi-state projects and participating states are also managing their own individual projects. And why should states and localities care about surveillance for waterborne disease? As CDC’s Zarate-Bermudez explained, “waste and contamination of water sources can deeply impact the water cycle.”

On an even scarier note, research presented by Mansoor Baloch, also of CDC, shows that between 1948 and1994, 40 percent of waterborne disease outbreaks resulted from unknown water contamination sources.

To confront these challenges and prevent future water-related outbreaks, CDC is also promoting a new systems approach via water safety plans and watershed-based health systems. Such efforts will better protect the public health and provide long-term change and process improvement in water management.

Sounds like a win-win all around.

— M.S.

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