Cleaning Contaminated Water in Uganda

“If we can find affordable, workable solutions in Uganda, it can transfer to other places.”

In 2006, Anita Hunter was teaching at the University of San Diego School of Nursing when a visiting priest from Uganda asked: “Can someone help us save 14,000 children who die in his community from preventable diseases?”

Hunter rose to the challenge and went to Uganda in 2007. Her goal was to complete a needs assessment in the district of Mbarara to identify what people thought was needed to help improve the children’s health.

Now clinical professor and associate director of nursing programs at WSU Vancouver, she led a group of graduate nursing students and faculty to Mbarara. They quickly learned that the greatest need was for a children’s hospital. With funds raised largely from members of the Church of San Rafael in San Diego, the new Holy Innocents Children’s Hospital opened in 2009.

Ug-mapThanks to modern medical supplies donated by other hospitals in the United States and Europe, Hunter said, the Holy Innocents Hospital has indeed saved lives. “The hospital was the primary goal,” Hunter said. “But we had to reach out and do prevention and keep kids out of the hospital.”

Many children admitted to the hospital had cognitive and developmental delays. Hunter and colleagues decided to find out why. Was it related to malaria? Was it environmental? What could be done?

Underground lava contaminates water

The answer lay with a collaborative team of health professionals, students and scientists. USD scientists and students had been studying water quality in Uganda, and they discovered that a majority of Ugandans lacked access to clean water.

Most Ugandans draw their water from streams, swamps and boreholes. The underground aquifers supplying this water bubble up through lava, which contaminates the water with arsenic and other heavy metals. These heavy metals are known to cause cognitive and developmental problems in adults and children, as well as birth defects and problems in pregnancy.

A filtering system developed by the Ugandan government helps less than half the population, those who get their water from government sources. “We need to find people who are consuming this water and can be protected,” Hunter said.

She is now seeking funding for a broader study to test both the physical and the mental health of mothers and children in the district.

“We will conduct a formal developmental assessment on children and formal physical assessments on mothers and children,” Hunter said. “We will look at the mothers’ neurological history and pregnancy history. We will test the urine in children and moms for heavy metals, then analyze the data to see if there’s a relationship between the child’s and the mother’s health.”

With that information, her team can prepare a report to the Ugandan Minister of Health. “Once they have documentation, they will take more action regarding water quality,” Hunter said. “They are willing to listen to us, because we’ve been there so long and proven our worth.”

Food sources can help clean water

Promoting a healthy community will involve social, cultural and behavioral change. Hunter’s group knows, for example, that certain foods—particularly leafy greens, cilantro, fruits and eggs—can help break down arsenic and other contaminants.

The challenge will be to get that message to the Ugandan people—and continue to reinforce it until everyday practices change. “We will teach people in the community to reinforce the message about how people can clean the water to the best of their ability to get rid of contaminants,” Hunter said. Although fruits and vegetables are costly, families can be encouraged to plant gardens and small farms.

Until a better, affordable filtration system is developed—a process that is under way—“a clean environment, sanitation and hygiene, and improved nutrition go a long way,” Hunter said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s better than it was.”

What Hunter is learning has global implications. “Uganda is not the only place with arsenic,” she said. “It’s here in Washington state, in the Southeast, Southwest, Northeast and Northwest—anyplace that has lava in the soil. If we can find affordable, workable solutions in Uganda, it can transfer to other places.”

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