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For more information on rural sanitation and disease in Alaska

April 27

How many times a day do you wash your hands? 

If you have running water, you probably wash your hands many times a day, each time in clean, warm water. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, hand washing consumes one gallon of water per wash.

If you live in one of the 3,300 Alaskan households without plumbing,  you probably don't wash your hands as often. (See the Village Safe Water Program'slist of unserved communities.) You aren't using one gallon of clean water each time. In places where water is hauled by hand or purchased by the gallon, it's common practice for everyone in the household to share a common wash basin.  

In those conditions, it's easy for viruses and bacteria to spread from one person to another. This is especially hard on infants and babies. For example, when adults are hit with the RSV virus, it feels like a cold. The same virus often causes serious respiratory infections in babies. 

In the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta region of Alaska, 40% of the homes lack plumbing. There, one in four babies is hospitalized for respiratory infections -- such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis -- that can create lifelong respiratory problems.

In 2008, the results of a study on the relationships between hand washing, the lack of piped water and sewer, and serious disease were published in the American Journal of Public Health (APJH). Dr. Tom Hennessy , director of of the Arctic Investigations Program, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was the lead author. Click here to see the AJPH article.

In 2006, study co-authors Capt.Jeff Smith and Lt. Troy Ritter , of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, gave a talk on the same topic at the National Tribal Forum on Environmental Science National Tribal Forum on Environmental Science. Click here to see their slide show about the relationship between in-home water service and infectious disease among Alaska Natives. 

The last slide shows variables such as income, race, size of community, annual income, and employment rates. Characteristics of communities with less than 10% plumbing include:

  • 98% Alaska Native
  • 312 community population
  • 23% unemployment
  • 4.7 family members

For more information, also see:
Transport of fecal bacteria by boots and vehicle tires in a rural Alaskan community

Living in Utility Scarcity: Energy and Water Insecurity in Northwest Alaska

The relationship between in-home water service and the risk of respiratory tract, skin, and gastrointestinal tract infections among rural Alaska Natives

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