Study: Rural Alaska Natives suffer serious respiratory infections

Anchorage, Alaska (AP) 4-08

A study finds that Alaska Natives living in the Bush in homes without running water suffer much higher rates of serious respiratory infections, including pneumonia.

The Centers for Disease Control study also found that in homes without running water, where wastewater is collected in “honey buckets”, occupants also suffer higher rates of antibiotic resistant staph infections, and other skin infections.

The study is believed to be the first in the U.S. to demonstrate a link between the availability of water and respiratory infections.

The results were published in the American Journal of Public Health.

In Alaska in 2000, complete sanitation services were still lacking in 6.3 percent of households, placing it first in the nation.

Infants in Alaska villages with the lowest percentage of homes with running water are hospitalized for pneumonia 11 times more often than infants in the overall U.S. population, the study found.

In one region in particular, which the study does not name, 35 out of every 100 babies in villages with the lowest level of water service had to be hospitalized due to lower respiratory tract infections.

“Which is really quite astounding,” said Dr. Thomas Hennessy, the study’s author and director of the CDC’s Arctic Investigation Program in Anchorage.

The problem doesn’t appear to be bad water, Hennessy said. In fact, the study found that areas where a high percentage of residents haul their own water did not show elevated rates of infectious diarrhea.

Instead, CDC researchers think the problem might be traced to a reluctance by some rural Alaskans to use water for hygienic purposes when they have to haul it to their homes, sometimes over great distances, one five-gallon container at a time.

“The inconvenience of not having water and not being able to clean your hands and body perhaps in the same way you would if you had running water – and the negative consequences that has for the spread of infectious diseases in a household – is really quite telling,” Hennessy said.

The CDC study was conducted in cooperation with the Indian Health Service and tribal health corporations in six regions of Alaska. It surveyed more than 12,000 homes in 128 communities between 2000 and 2004.

Overall, 73 percent of the rural homes studied had in-home water services. In villages where less than 10 percent of the homes provided running water, the incidence of respiratory infections and skin infections were highest. Infants and the elderly were particularly vulnerable.

Hospitalization rates for infants with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, were five times higher than the national average.