The Childhood Health Effects of an Improved Water Supply System on a Remote Panamanian Island

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  • * Gorgas Memorial Laboratory, Panama City, Republic of Panama
  • ** National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20205
  • School of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York 14642
  • International Center for Medical Research, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland 21218

The incidence of diarrhea, respiratory disease, and skin infections was prospectively determined after the introduction of a system which distributed unlimited quantities of high quality fresh water to each of the 150 housing units on Tupile, an island devoid of fresh water located off Panama's Caribbean coast and inhabited by 1,500 Cuna Indians. Tupile residents used 7.1 liters of water/person/day compared to the 2.3 usage rate of inhabitants on Achutupo, the control island. Despite ready availability of water in each household, Tupile residents continued to store water in contaminated vessels prior to use. Forty percent of stored water samples tested on Tupile and 45% on Achutupo were contaminated with E. coli organisms. There were 4.7 episodes/child year (E/Y) of acute diarrhea on Tupile compared with the 3.5 rate on Achutupo. The rotavirus infection rate on Tupile was 0.8 E/Y compared with 0.2 E/Y on Achutupo. Infection rates for Norwalk virus, respiratory syncytial virus and Coxsackie B 1–6 viruses were similar on both islands. Respiratory disease rates were high on both islands (2.2 E/Y on Tupile, 2.7 E/Y on Achutupo). Achutupo had much higher rates of impetigo and scabies (0.6 E/Y and 2.5 E/Y, respectively) than Tupile (0.2 E/Y and 1.4 E/Y)

Provision of the water distribution system had a beneficial effect on the incidence of water-washed diseases (impetigo and scabies), but at best had no effect on diarrheal disease.