Water Insecurity Raises Health Risks in Vulnerable Patients

Extreme weather events associated with climate change (such as the drought currently affecting much of Mexico), population growth, and rapid urbanization jeopardize the availability, quantity, and quality of water to meet the basic consumption and hygiene needs of the population.

According to the drought monitor of Mexico’s National Water Commission (Conagua), in March 2024, nearly 60% of Mexican territory experienced moderate, severe, extreme, or exceptional drought. The areas affected by the last two, most intense, degrees represented 26% of the country.

This situation, which has led several authorities to declare alerts due to an imminent water crisis, implies problems in the supply of this resource to Mexican households. These problems can endanger the health of affected populations, mainly the most vulnerable, such as minors. Research based on data from the 2021 and 2022 Continuous National Health and Nutrition Survey found that the prevalence of water insecurity in Mexican households was 16.3% in 2021 and 16.5% in 2022.

More than 6 million households in Mexico had difficulties related to the access, availability, and use of water.

The same study, which considered the sociodemographic characteristics of the populations involved, reported that in 2022, households located in the northern border region (Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas) had the highest proportion of water insecurity at 24.9%. They were followed by residential areas located in the Mexico City/State of Mexico region, with 19.9% insecurity, while the Peninsula region (Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, and Yucatán) had the lowest proportion of households with water insecurity (8.6%).

The analysis found significant changes in the magnitude of water insecurity. In 2021, the region with the lowest proportion was the northern border, which increased by 18.9 percentage points between 2021 and 2022. In addition, in the first year studied, 15.2% of households in rural areas had water insecurity, and by 2022, the percentage had increased to 17.2%.

Effects on Hygiene

Based on these results, the study concluded that Mexico must have an intensive action plan, focused on addressing environmental deterioration, water scarcity, and contamination to ensure the water security of the population, an issue it considers a matter of national security.

Mascareñas de los Santos, a specialist in bacterial and viral infections and member of the Mexican Academy of Pediatrics, pointed out that during periods of water scarcity, the probability of contamination may be higher due to decreased river flow or reduced treatment capacity. “This increases the risk of consuming contaminated water,” he said.

The former president of the Latin American Society of Pediatric Infectious Diseases added that “water scarcity can hinder maintaining good personal hygiene, such as handwashing and proper food preparation, thus increasing the chances of transmission of acute diarrheal diseases.”

Addressing Risk Factors

The World Health Organization estimates that around 1 million people die each year from diarrheal diseases contracted as a result of unclean water, inadequate sanitation, or poor hand hygiene. However, as stated in a report, most of these diseases are preventable, so if these risk factors are addressed, around 395,000 deaths of children younger than 5 years could be avoided each year.

According to the organization, drinking water contaminated with microbes from feces poses the greatest risk for toxicity. In 2022, at least 1.7 billion people in the world extracted water for their personal consumption from sources with such microorganisms. This can lead to the transmission of diarrheal diseases, cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever, and polio. An estimated 505,000 deaths occur each year from diarrheal diseases.

On the other hand, a study assessing the risk for enteric diseases among infants living in areas with insufficient water supply in Mexico City found that although underground deposits presented a high risk for contamination by fecal matter, endemic patterns of diarrhea observed among children were mainly associated with poor sanitary practices.

In this study, the investigators found that 1-year-old infants had the highest proportion of diarrhea during the dry season, especially those who noticed an unpleasant odor in the water or consumed vegetables washed without disinfectant. By contrast, they observed the lowest risk in individuals who had water supply at home throughout the day, a flushing toilet, as well as covered containers to store water.

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