[Skip to Content]

How Upstate is helping to improve drinking water in rural Kenya

Students and faculty with ties to Syracuse are working to make drinking water safe in other parts of the world using a novel straw that filters out disease-causing germs. Americans have come to expect clean water, "but even in this country, 100 years ago people were dying of diarrhea and diseases related to unclean water," says Mary Ann Saniford-Day, a student in the master of public health program offered together through Syracuse University and Upstate Medical University.

Today an estimated 884 million people in the world, 37 percent of whom
live in Sub-Saharan Africa, still use unimproved sources of drinking water. Many get sick and many die as a result. Those with compromised immune systems, the poor and the young are most at risk. Nearly one in five child deaths, about 1.5 million each year, is due to diarrhea, which kills more young children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. Finding a way to provide sustainable access to clean water would help reduce mortality and global poverty -- but the challenge is how.

Wells can be dug for water, but they must be maintained. Boiling water can make it safe for household use, but one must have the ability to continually boil water. Chemicals can be added to water to kill germs, but the additives are expensive and change the taste of the water.

So public health experts are looking for a better way.

Dye, Timothy

Timothy Dye, PhD

That's why Timothy Dye, PhD lead a study to assess beliefs, attitudes and behaviors related to diarrhea and water filtration in rural Kenya. Dye, an adjunct professor of public health and preventive medicine at Upstate, is now the Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Public Health at Syracuse University's College of Sport and Human Dynamics.

"It's hard to intervene if people don't have a sense of what is causing the problem," he says, explaining that it's important to make sure people understand that diarrhea is caused by drinking contaminated water, so that they understand the importance of not drinking contaminated water.

Most participants in Dye's study, published in June in the American Journal of Public Health, understood the connection. And most liked the new device called LifeStraw, made by the disease control textile company, Vestergaard Frandsen of Europe. It allows a person to drink from a cup of contaminated water. A filter within prevents disease-causing germs from being ingested. The devices "rapidly proved acceptable to community members and were consistent with community practices and beliefs," the study summary says.

"These point-of-use filters really were popular," Dye says. "People liked them based on immediate benefit, which is important."

The straws last for a couple of years, depending on how frequently they are used.

Listen to the interview about clean drinking water on Health Link on Air radio.

Read the abstract of Dye's study.