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Waterborne diseases

By Lucy Clarke · January 2, 2022

Most Common Waterborne Diseases and How To Prevent Them

In the developed world, waterborne diseases are thought to be illnesses of the past. However, waterborne diseases affect hundreds of millions of people every year who do not have access to clean, safe drinking water. 

You don’t expect something you need to survive to be something which could be a real deadly threat, yet 3.4 million people die from water-related diseases every year. What are the most common waterborne diseases and how can they be prevented?

What are waterborne diseases?

Waterborne diseases are diseases found in water. 

They are often contaminated by parasites, viruses or bacteria - usually from human or animal waste. Any contact with contaminated water can spread these diseases, so those who bathe, drink, wash and prepare food with this water are at a high risk of catching a waterborne illness. 

Why do waterborne diseases pose such a risk?

Waterborne illnesses can be devastating and deadly.

There are numerous challenges posed by waterborne diseases. It’s very easy for the whole water supply to become infected, and in many parts of the world, clean water is a delicate infrastructure.

If any natural disaster strikes, such as flooding, it will be very difficult to obtain water that’s safe to drink. 

Once you’ve caught a waterborne disease, in many parts of the world, the medication that could cure many of these illnesses is difficult to source. The lack of access to medicine leads to high numbers of preventable deaths. 

If there are large amounts of standing water - which is particularly likely in areas of flooding - then it becomes an ideal habitat for mosquitoes to breed in. This leads to deadly outbreaks of malaria. 

Why are waterborne diseases even more dangerous for children?

Waterborne diseases can be devastating for children. Children, especially those under 3,  are more likely to play in contaminated bodies of water, and children across the developing world usually suffer from malnourishment. 

The high frequency of children catching waterborne diseases paired with their weaker immune system due to malnourishment means that waterborne diseases are partly responsible for high childhood mortality rates. 

All of these factors become far more dangerous in times of crisis - such as during extreme weather like flooding. 


What are the most common waterborne diseases in the world?

Typhoid Fever

Cases of typhoid fever are virtually unheard of in industrialised countries, but in poor countries, the disease is extremely well-known. 

It’s estimated that over 20 million people suffer from the illness annually. The symptoms include a fever that gets worse over time, muscle aches, fatigue, sweating, and diarrhea.

For those who can afford to buy treatment, typhoid can be cured with antibiotics. Tourists and travellers from rich countries are often immunized against typhoid before traveling, but these medications are often not available to the world’s poorest people.


Sadly, cholera is extremely common in places that are experiencing humanitarian crises or in places where poverty and poor sanitation are rampant.

Cholera is an acute diarrheal disease that can turn deadly within hours of being infected. It is also highly contagious, so cases can suddenly spike from seemingly nowhere and turn into an outbreak that’s hard to control. 

Cholera can be easily treated by intaking rehydration salts to replace lost fluids. However, if left untreated, cholera can be fatal. 


Giardia can be found in streams and ponds, but it often makes its way into the town’s water supply and swimming pools. The infection is caused by a parasite. Symptoms of giardia include abdominal pain, nausea, and weight loss.  

Typically, giardia clears up after a few weeks, especially if the immune system isn’t compromised. However, in some cases, giardia creates long-term intestinal health problems, and poor families cannot afford the anti-parasite medication needed to treat the symptoms.


Dysentery is typically a disease associated with poor hygiene, and it is a disease characterised by severe diarrhea. If the person suffering from dysentery cannot replace their lost fluids quickly enough, the disease can become fatal.

If traveling in an area with high rates of dysentery, the best way to prevent it is to wash your hands with soap and water. However, many of the poorest communities in the world do not have access to good sanitation.  

Escherichia Coli (E. coli)

E.coli in developed countries is perhaps most known for localised food poisoning outbreaks, but it is also characterized as a waterborne disease.

E.coli has symptoms similar to dysentery but the very young and the very old are at the highest risk of developing life-threatening conditions. 

The best way to avoid catching E.coli is to practice good personal hygiene and to not drink any contaminated water, but for many communities around the world, that choice is a luxury they cannot afford. 

Hepatitis A

This is a disease that affects the liver and is caused by coming in contact with contaminated food or water, or people who have already caught the illness themselves.

It’s a disease typified by nausea, vomiting, and fatigue but it usually goes away in a few weeks. However, in some cases, Hepatitis A can become severe and last months. The best way Hepatitis A can be prevented is by a vaccine. 


Most cases of salmonella occur when someone has ingested food or water contaminated with feces. Certain foodstuffs like undercooked meat, eggs and fruits and vegetables can also carry the disease. 

Symptoms include: headaches, diarrhea, and chills. Salmonella isn’t dangerous for most people, but for those who have particularly weakened immune systems - like young children and pregnant women, there can be complications. 

The severest cases require hospitalisation and antibiotics, both of which will be difficult for rural, poor communities to obtain. 


How can we prevent waterborne diseases?

In communities where waterborne diseases are prevalent, they have no access to safe, clean drinking water. 

Some of these diseases like Hepatitis A and Typhoid can be vaccinated against, but the communities who are fighting most against waterborne illnesses have little or no access to medication.

Another way to help mitigate the destruction of waterborne illnesses is to work with affected communities and teach vital sanitation and health practices that will help prevent them from getting sick. 

However, all of these diseases are spread via contact with contaminated water. The best way to prevent waterborne diseases is simply by providing clean drinking water. 

By using Elliot for Water to search the web, you can help us fight against waterborne diseases. With your help, we can eradicate waterborne diseases and we can change lives.  

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