Tag Archives: LMICs

A Heretical Suggestion!

The locus of health care is moving increasingly towards the community. In high-income countries (HIC) the greatest burden of health falls to frail elderly people with multiple chronic diseases. Hospital is often bad news for such people, both from a psychological and physical point of view.[1] There are good arguments for avoidance of admissions, and for increasing care provision in the community in HICs. In low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) there are also good arguments for community care. The WHO estimates that over three-quarters of all care could be most appropriately delivered in the community. The Declaration of Alma Ata and the Bamako Initiative from the United Nations both support the development of community care for LMICs. In this News Blog I wish to probe this subject more deeply. I will argue that community care is entirely appropriate for preventive outreach care. However, I will argue that we should re-examine the case for promoting community over hospital settings for demand-led care, especially in deprived urban environment.

My re-examination of this subject came about as a result of recent tours of eight slums within Nigeria, Kenya, Pakistan and Bangladesh. While all of these areas have a strong need for supply-side preventive care in the community, I have come to question the wisdom of trying to develop demand-led care within slum localities. My misgivings are based on a number of personal observations and from a reading of the relevant literature.

On site observations suggest that local residents prefer to use hospital facilities, even when this is less convenient than a more accessible community clinic. Some, but not all, slums are reasonably well supplied by local clinics. These clinics are usually staffed by medical officers or nurses rather than doctors. In many cases they have been provided by NGOs. I have observed that these clinics do not have many clients. When I draw attention to this, I am often told that this is because I have come at a quiet period. However, when I probe more deeply, I learn that the outpatients departments of nearby hospitals receive the bulk of the patients. Certainly that is my impression on visits to hospitals in LMICs where outpatient departments ‘heave’ with patients. This finding triangulates with work that colleagues and I have carried out in India under MRC sponsorship.

Not only do local residents seem to prefer hospital-based outpatient’s care, but my reading of the literature suggests that they are right to do so. Working with colleagues, I am carrying out a review of the quality of care provided in local settings in LMICs. The literature shows that such care is almost universally of a low standard, irrespective of whether the provider is private or public. Care given by doctors is generally better than that given by non-medical personnel, but even so is of a poor standard when delivered in the community. The quality of care across both settings is a topic of enquiry in the NIHR Unit on Health Service Provision in Slums that I direct. However, I suspect that the hospital will come out on top.

The corollary of the above, rather preliminary findings, is that we should be cautious about wholesale, and perhaps ideologically-driven, policies to deliver demand-based healthcare coverage in community settings  in low-income urban environments. Pending further research I hypothesise that it may be better to improve access and quality in hospital settings, at least in the first instance. Before taking fixed positions on these important issues we need to understand more about access to healthcare at the demand-side, the quality of such healthcare, and the most-cost effective approaches to driving up the quality of health care.

Please note that all of the above remarks apply to healthcare at the demand-side. That is to say, where a person has sought care for a perceived health problem. We fully support outreach primary preventive services to ensure vaccination, detect malnutrition, and ensure that people stick to their HIV and other treatment regimes.

Box A. Section VI of the Declaration of Alma-Ata

Primary health care is essential health care based on practical, scientifically sound and socially acceptable methods and technology made universally accessible to individuals and families in the community [emphasis added] through their full participation and at a cost that the community and country can afford to maintain at every stage of their development in the spirit of selfreliance and self-determination. It forms an integral part both of the country’s health system, of which it is the central function and main focus, and of the overall social and economic development of the community. It is the first level of contact of individuals, the family and community with the national health system bringing health care as close as possible to where people live and work, and constitutes the first element of a continuing health care process.”

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. Lilford RJ. Intensive Care Harmful in Elderly Patients. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 7 December 2017.

Is Fertility Control a Demand or Supply-Side Issue?

In China, population control has been achieved by coercive means. But in other countries it must be controlled by increasing access to contraceptives or by stimulating demand by non-coercive means. Where does the main barrier lie in low- and middle-income countries? Miller and Babiarz (2016) tackle this old chest – not by means of a systematic review. They include only experimental and instrumental variable-based studies.[1]

They find few RCTs. The most famous of these experiments is the Matlab study in Bangladesh,[2] where 141 areas were randomised in a cluster trial. The intervention group received visits every two weeks by community reproductive health workers who provided information and access to contraception. This intense, and arguably unscalable, intervention yielded a drop in fertility of about 20% over a lifetime. A slightly smaller effect was found in a further trial, this time of 37 clusters in Ghana. However, the two remaining RCTs consisted of family services that were grafted onto an existing program (HIV services in Kenya and micro-credit in Ethiopia), and both yielded null results.

Instrumental variable studies depend on a sudden increase or decrease in supply that does not seem to be attributable to a change in demand. Mostly these take the form of a stepwise roll-out of services (Iran after 1989; Colombia in 1965) and find reductions of around 20% infertility. Likewise fertility increased and then decreased in Romania when a ban on abortion, the main method of contraception in that country, was imposed and then lifted.[3] I guess the best one can say is that, absent China style enforcement, contraceptive provision is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for fertility control.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. Miller G & Babiarz KS. Family Planning Program Effects: Evidence from Microdata. Popul Dev Rev. 2016; 42(1): 7-26.
  2. Schultz TP. Population policies, fertility, women’s human capital and child quality. In: Handbook of Development Economics Volume 4. 2007, pp. 3249–303.
  3. Pop-Eleches C. The Impact of an Abortion Ban on Socioeconomic Outcomes of Children: Evidence from Romania. J Polit Econ. 2006; 114(4): 744-73.

Traditional Healers and Mental Health

The case for traditional healers in mental health

There are two arguments for traditional healer involvement in mental health provision; one pragmatic and one theoretical. The pragmatic argument turns on the huge shortfall in human resources to deal with mental health problems in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).[1] Traditional healers could make up for this shortage in human resources in the formal sector. A theoretical argument for the role of traditional healers turns on cultural factors. The argument here is that traditional healers are ideally placed to intervene in conditions with social origins, or when symptoms are coloured by cultural assumptions. Traditional healers, one might suppose, can tap into the beliefs and expectation of local people to reach parts of the mind that are simply inaccessible under a ‘medical model’. According to this argument modern medicine is the appropriate vehicle for the diagnosis and management for the conditions that are mainly of the body. It would be unwise, for example, to rely on traditional healers for the treatment of an acutely febrile child, or for provision of contraceptive advice. However, the traditional healer might be the appropriate first port of call for people with conditions of the mind.

The case against traditional healers in mental health

An argument against the above position is that the most serious types of mental health condition, psychotic illnesses, require modern pharmacotherapy, at least to stabilise patients. While all psychiatric conditions are of both brain and mind, psychotic conditions can be closer in form to those of standard medical diseases and the effects of properly targeted chemotherapy can be dramatic. There are many well documented cases where access to appropriate pharmacological therapy was denied or cruelly delayed while patients were treated unsuccessfully by traditional healers. From this perspective one should no more consult a traditional healer for a mental illness than for suspected malaria.

Reconciling the case for and against: a topic for investigation and research

On the one hand, traditional healers can offer culturally sensitive treatment for non-psychotic conditions, while on the other hand, severe mental illness requires medical services. It could be argued that traditional and modern medical services should be integrated so that traditional healers could treat the majority of patients, i.e. those with non-psychotic diseases, while allopathic clinicians treat the more severe cases. Moreover, different people have different preferences, and individuals may wish to receive care from both types of providers, even for the same illness. These would seem to be further arguments to integrate traditional and allopathic services within the same system and, indeed, in an integrated reimbursement system. Before implementing such a system it would surely be sensible to evaluate the effectiveness of traditional healers in the treatment of various psychiatric conditions and to ensure that, with the appropriate education, they would be able to refer cases that need medical treatment.

Philosophical problems in collaboration between traditional healing and modern medicine

The CLAHRC WM Director is keen to explore the relative effectiveness of traditional and allopathic treatments for non-psychotic mental illness but he is concerned that there may be irreconcilable philosophical differences in the traditional versus allopathic approach. This concern arises from different ontologies that underpin the different kinds of service. That is to say these traditions have different views on what counts as truth. Modern medical practice is very much a product of what might be called ‘enlightenment thinking’; practice built on an understanding of biological mechanisms / scientific explanations.[2] Such a world view is a far cry from the assumptions that underpin traditional healing, and which are guided by a set of traditional beliefs, often of a religious nature. So the question is whether it is possible to truly integrate systems with such different sets of underpinning assumptions? This is partly an empirical question – different systems could be examined to understand how well they can work together. The CLAHRC WM Director understands that moves are afoot to integrate allopathic medicine with traditional Chinese medicine in China, and in Ayurvedic medicine in India. It would be interesting to make independent studies of these systems. But in the meantime I would suggest a thought experiment. Let us imagine a proposed trial of rose-hip water vs. anti-depressant medication taking place in an integrated hospital. The allopathic practitioners present this as a placebo-controlled trial, while the traditional healers present this as a trail of two effective alternatives – the underlying belief systems determine how the treatments are presented. The CLAHRC WM Director suspects that it is very difficult to really integrate two systems based on very different philosophical premises. It is one thing to make irenic statements about mutual respect and so on, but another to supress tensions that seem likely to arise from fundamentally irreconcilable philosophical assumptions.

Living with contradictions

The question of integrating these different systems of thought is, perhaps, unresolvable. The systems have existed side by side for a hundred years or more. In high-income countries there is a thriving industry in complementary therapies and the list of alternative methods is almost too long to recite. Likewise traditional medicine and modern medicine have existed side by side quite happily in Africa, South Asia and China for many years. The populations in all these countries seem, on the whole, pretty savvy at working out which method is more appropriate for them in which condition. I have never heard of anyone going to a homeopath for their family planning needs. But systems co-existing in society is one thing, integrating them in common administrative and reimbursement systems is another. Every now and then there is an attempt to unite religion and science around a common purpose – the Lancet commission is currently involved in such a process.[3] [4] However, it may be the case that like religion and science; traditional and allopathic medicine can live happily side by side within the same community and within the same individual. Whether and how they can really be brought together in a structural / organisational sense, for example in the same institution or within the same reimbursement system, is a matter for analysis and exploration. One thing I am sure of is that policy should not be made as though this were a technical issue and without considering the very different world views that lie behind each type of provision. Maybe the best that can be accomplished is for the systems to become more aware of each other and cross-refer when necessary, but to continue to make their own independent contributions?

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. Rathod S, Pinninti N, Irfan M, Gorczynski P, Rathod P, Gega L, Naeem F. Mental Health Service Provision in Low- and Middle-Income Countries. Health Serv Insights. 2017; 10:
  2. Spray EC. Health and Medicine in the Enlightenment. Jackon M (ed). The Oxford Handbook of the History of Medicine. 2011.
  3. Horton R. When The Lancet went to the Vatican. Lancet. 2017; 389: 1500.
  4. Lee N, Remuzzi G, Horton R. The Vatican-Mario Negri-Lancet Commission on the value of life. Lancet. 2017; 390: 1573.

Deforestation and Diarrhoea

Contaminated water can lead to numerous diseases, including diarrhoea, a leading cause of child mortality. In a previous News Blog we discussed the importance of water contamination, and the many methods by which it can occur.[1] One such route is contaminated surface water, which has been linked to outbreaks of diarrhoea in previous studies.[2] A major factor affecting the quality of surface water is the ‘watershed condition’ – the natural land cover provided by the ecosystem, such as forests and wetlands. This ecosystem filters pollutants and pathogens from surface water supplies, and can stabilise soil, and minimise erosion and sediment loading.

Herrera and colleagues conducted an observational database study of almost 300,000 children aged under 5 from 35 countries, looking at their health, socioeconomic factors (such as mother’s education, household wealth, access to improved sanitation and water sources), climate (temperature and precipitation) and watershed condition.[3] Watershed condition was measured by estimating the percentage of water that was affected by people and livestock or tree cover upstream from the household.

They found that high tree cover upstream of the child’s household was associated with a lower probability of diarrhoea (odds ratio less than 1, but not specified). This was significant only for rural households, however, not urban. In rural communities it is estimated that only 33% of households obtain their water from piped sources (compared to 79% in urban areas), and 93% of people who use surface water as their main water source live in rural areas.

The authors used a model to estimate that increasing tree cover upstream by 30% would have a similar effect to improving sanitation (an estimated 4% reduction in probability of diarrhoea from baseline). It would, however, not have as great an impact as improving the water source (7% reduction), wealth (12% reduction) or education of the households (13% reduction). It seems that, under certain conditions, conservation strategies that ensure that tree cover is high could serve as effective investments in public health.

— Peter Chilton, Research Fellow


  1. Lilford RJ. A Secondary Sanitary Revolution? What About the First One? NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. September 1, 2017.
  2. Bessong, P., Odiyo, J., Musekene, J. & Tessema, A. Spatial distribution of diarrhoea and microbial quality of domestic water during an outbreak of diarrhoea in the Tshikuwi community in Venda, South Africa. J Health Popul Nutr 2009; 27: 652-9.
  3. Herrera D, Ellis A, Fisher B, et al. Upstream watershed condition predicts rural children’s health across 35 developing countries. Nature Comm 2017; 8: 811.

Towards a Unifying Theory for the Development of Health and Social Services as the Economy Develops in Countries

In a previous news blog I proposed grassroots solutions to the transportation of critically ill patients to hospital.[1] Other work has demonstrated the effectiveness of community action groups in many contexts, such as maternity care.[2] More recently I have read that the Kenyan government is proposing a combination of local authority and community action (Water Sector Trust Fund) to improve water and sewage in urban settlements.[3] The idea is for the local authority to provide the basic pipe infrastructure and then for local communities to establish linkages to bring water and sewage into homes. The government does not merely lay pipes, but also stimulates local involvement, including local subsidies and micro-enterprises. This epitomises collaboration between authorities and community groups.

In an extremely poor, post-conflict country, such as South Sudan, it is hard to find activities where the authorities and local people work together to improve health and wellbeing. On the other hand, in extremely rich countries like Norway and Switzerland, the government provides almost all that is required; all the citizen has to do is walk into the bathroom and turn on the tap.

The idea that is provoked by these many observations is that different solutions suit different countries at different points in their development. So much so obvious. Elaboration of the idea would go something like this. When a country is at the bottom end of the distribution for wealth, there is very little to be done other than put the basics of governance and law and order into place and try to reduce corruption. Once the country becomes more organised and slightly better off, a mixture of bottom-up and top-down solutions should be implemented. At this point, the tax base is simply too small for totally top-down, Norwegian style, solutions. In effect the bottom-up contribution makes good the tax deficit – it is a type of local and voluntary taxation. As the economy grows and as the middle class expands, the tax base increases and the government can take a larger role in funding and procuring (or providing) comprehensive services for its citizens.

This might seem anodyne written down as above. However, it is important to bear in mind that harm can be done by making the excellent the enemy of the good. Even before a substantial middle-class evolves in society, wealth is being generated. I recently visited a number of urban settlements (slums) in Nigeria, Pakistan and Kenya. All of these places were a hive of economic activity. This activity was mostly in the informal sector, generating small surpluses. Such wealth is invisible to the tax person, but it is there, and can be used. Using it requires organisation: “grit in the oyster”. The science base on how best to provide this ‘grit’ is gradually maturing. In order for it to do so, studies must be carried out across various types of community engagement and support. I expect this to be a maturing field of inquiry to which the global expansion of the CLAHRC message can contribute. Members of our CLAHRC WM team are engaging in such work through NIHR-funded programmes on health services and global surgery, and we hope to do so with regard to water and sanitation in the future.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. Lilford RJ. Transport to Place of Care. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 29 September 2017.
  2. Lilford RJ. Lay Community Health Workers. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 10 April 2015.
  3. Water Sector Trust Fund, GIZ. Up-scaling Basic Sanitation for the Urban Poor (UBSUP) in Kenya. 2017.

Transport to Place of Care

Availability of emergency transport is taken for granted in high-income countries. The debate in such countries relates to such matters as the marginal advantages of helicopters over vehicle ambulances, and what to do when the emergency team arrives at the scene of an accident. But in low- or low-middle-income countries, the situation is very different – in Malawi, for example, there is no pretence that a comprehensive ambulance system exists. The subject of transport does not seem to get attention commensurate with its importance. Researchers love to study the easy stuff – role of particulates in lung disease; prevalence of diabetes in urban vs. rural areas; effectiveness of vaccines. But study selection should not depend solely on tractability – the scientific spotlight should also encompass topics that are more difficult to pin down, but which are critically important. Transport of critically ill patients falls into this category.[1]

Time is of the essence for many conditions. Maternity care is an archetypal example,[2] where delayed treatment in conditions such as placental abruption, eclampsia, ruptured uterus, and obstructed labour can be fatal for mother and child. The same applies to acute infections (most notably meningococcal meningitis) and trauma where time is critical (even if there is no abrupt cut-off following the so called ‘golden hour’).[3] The outcome for many surgical conditions is affected by delay during which, by way of example, an infected viscus may rupture, an incarcerated hernia may become gangrenous, or a patient with a ruptured tubal pregnancy might exsanguinate. However, in many low-income countries less than one patient in fifty has access to an ambulance service.[4] What is to be done?

The subject has been reviewed by Wilson and colleagues in a maternity care context.[5] Their review revealed a number of papers based on qualitative research. They find the theory that one might have anticipated – long delays, lack of infrastructure, and so on. They also make some less intuitive findings. People think that having an emergency vehicle at the ready could bring bad luck, and that it is shameful to expose oneself when experiencing vaginal bleeding.

Quite a lot of work has been done on the use of satellites to develop isochrones based on distances,[6] gradients, and road provision. But working out how long it should take to reach a hospital does not say much about how long it takes in the absence of a service for the transport of acutely sick patients.

We start from the premise that, for the time being at least, a fully-fledged ambulance service is beyond the affordability threshold for many low-income countries. However, we note that many people make it to hospital in an emergency even when no ambulance is available. This finding makes one think of ‘grass-roots’ solutions; finding ways to release the capacity inherent in communities in order to provide more rapid transfers. An interesting finding in Wilson’s paper is that few people, even very poor people, could not find the money for transfer to a place of care in a dire emergency. However, this does not square with work on acutely ill children in Malawi (Nicola Desmond, personal communication), nor work done by CLAHRC WM researchers showing the large effects that user fees have in supressing demand, especially for children, in the Neno province of Malawi.[7] In any event, a grass roots solution should be sought, pending the day when all injured or acutely ill people have access to an ambulance. Possible solutions include community risk-sharing schemes, incentives to promote local enterprises to transport sick people, and automatic credit transfer arrangements to reimburse those who provide emergency transport.

I am leading a work package for the NIHR Global Surgery Unit, based at the University of Birmingham, concerned with access to care. We will describe current practice across purposively sampled countries, work with local people to design a ‘solution’, conduct geographical and cost-benefit analyses, and then work with decision-makers to implement affordable and acceptable improvement programmes. These are likely to involve a system of local risk-sharing (community insurance), IT facilitated transfer of funds, promotion of local transport enterprises, community engagement, and awareness raising. We are very keen to collaborate with others who may be planning work on this important topic.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. United Nations. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2007. New York: United Nations; 2007.
  2. Forster G, Simfukew V, Barber C. Use of intermediate mode of transport for patient transport: a literature review contrasted with the findings of Transaid Bicycle Ambulance project in Eastern Zambia. London: Transaid; 2009.
  3. Lord JM, Midwinter MJ, Chen Y-F, Belli A, Brohi K, Kovacs EJ, Koenderman L, Kubes P, Lilford RJ. The systemic immune response to trauma: an overview of pathophysiology and treatment. Lancet. 2014; 384(9952): 1455-65.
  4. Nyamandi V, Zibengwa E. Mobility and Health. 2007. In: Wilson A, Hillman S, Rosato M, Costello A, Hussein J, MacArthur C, Coomarasamy A. A systematic review and thematic synthesis of qualitative studies on maternal emergency transport in low- and middle-income countries. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 2013; 122(3): 192-201.
  5. Wilson A, Hillman S, Rosato M, Skelton J, Costello A, Hussein J, MacArthur C, Coomarasamy A. A systematic review and thematic synthesis of qualitative studies on maternal emergency transport in low- and middle-income countries. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 2013; 122(3): 192-201.
  6. Frew R, Higgs G, Harding J, Langford M. Investigating geospatial data usability from a health geography perspective using sensitivity analysis: The example of potential accessibility to primary healthcare. J Transp Health 2017 (In Press).
  7. Watson SI, Wroe EB, Dunbar EL, Mukherjee J, Squire SB, Nazimera L, Dullie L, Lilford RJ. The impact of user fees on health services utilization and infectious disease diagnoses in Neno District, Malawi: a longitudinal, quasi-experimental study. BMC Health Serv Res. 2016; 16(1): 595.

The Most Dangerous Animal

It is very difficult to know which animal is the most dangerous (human beings aside). The mosquito would be a good answer, while game rangers are fond of surprising tourists by saying that it is the hippopotamus. The latter is almost certainly wrong and you can surprise the game ranger by asking him or her for evidence. There is none. But the snake is undoubtedly a very dangerous creature. Cobras and mambas are lethal, but apparently the greatest number of animal deaths worldwide is from a small, but agile viper, called the saw-scaled viper. This is a viper that likes to bite and it is ubiquitous in areas lacking modern medical facilities.

The problem, recently discovered, is that the anti-venom for this snake tends to be specific to the area in which the viper is found.[1] Small geographical differences in the structure of the protein toxin that causes blood to clot in the vessels accounts for this spatial specificity. This means that anti-venoms must be made locally.

The real problem with snake bite treatment is that anti-venoms are not available when needed or they become damaged during transit and storage. Snakes are very important for local ecologies. A campaign of extermination would probably do humans more harm than good. So the battle between person and snake, which started all those years ago in the Garden of Eden, is set to continue.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. Rogalski A, SOerensen C, op den Brouw B, Lister C, Dashevsky D, Arbuckle K, Gloria A, Zdenek CN, Casewell NR, Gutiérrez JM, Wüster W, Ali SA, Masci P, Rowley P, Frank N, Fry BG. Differential procoagulant effects of saw-scaled viper (Serpentes: Viperidae: Echis) snake venoms on human plasma and the narrow taxonomic ranges of antivenom efficacies. Toxicol Lett. 2017; 280: 159-70.

Vaccination Savings

We know that vaccination is one of the most cost-effective interventions in terms of improving public health, but it can only be at its most effective if it is encouraged and supported by policy-makers and government officials. A recent paper in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization looked at the potential economic benefits of providing ten different vaccinations in 73 low- and middle-income countries.[1] These included vaccinations against hepatitis B, measles, rubella, and yellow fever. The authors found that if vaccinations were given routinely between 2001 and 2020, not only would 20 million children avoid death, but there would also be an estimated saving of $347 billion. This figure is predominantly made up of lifelong productivity gains from deaths avoided ($330 billion), but also from disabilities avoided ($9.4 billion), treatment costs ($4.5 billion), transport costs ($0.5 billion), and lost caregiver wages ($0.9 billion). Further they estimate that $820 billion would be saved from the broader economic and social value of vaccinations. The biggest contributor to these estimates was vaccination against measles, followed by H. influenza type b, S. pneumoniae, and hepatitis B.

— Peter Chilton, Research Fellow


  1. Ozawa S, Clark S, Portnoy A, et al. Estimated economic impact of vaccinations in 73 low- and middle-income countries, 2001–2020. Bull World Health Organ. 2017

How Much Fruit and Veg is Enough?

We are often told that we should be eating five (or is it now ten?) portions of fruit and vegetables each day to protect against, amongst other things, cardiovascular disease (CVD).[1] However, such recommendations are generally based on research conducted in people from Europe, the USA, Japan and China. There is little data from countries in the Middle East, South America, Africa or South Asia.

The PURE study (Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology) set out to rectify this, recruiting 135,000 participants from 18 countries, ranging from high-income countries, such as Sweden, to low-income countries, such as India.[2] The research team documented the diet of these individuals at baseline (using questionnaires specific to each country), then followed them up for a median of 7.4 years, looking at cardiovascular-related clinical outcomes. As expected higher intakes of fruit, vegetables and legumes were associated with lower incidences of major CVD, myocardial infarction, and mortality (cardiovascular-related and all-cause). However, the hazard ratio for all-cause mortality was lowest for three to four servings (375-400g) per day (0.78, 95%CI 0.69-0.88), with no significant decrease with higher consumption.

It is more likely that consuming around 375g of fruit/vegetables/legumes per day will be within the financial reach of people living in poorer countries, compared to the various recommendations of 400-800g that are often seen in Europe and North America. Before we ditch that extra snack of carrot sticks, however, it is important to note that factors such as food type, nutritional quality, cultivation and preparation are likely to vary between countries, while other clinical outcomes, such as cancer, were not looked at in this study.

The authors are continuing to enrol more participants, and are hoping to re-examine their results in the future.

— Peter Chilton, Research Fellow


  1. Oyebode O, Gordon-Dseagu V, Walker A, Mindell JS. Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause, cancer and CVD mortality: analysis of Health Survey for England data. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2014; 68(9): 856-62.
  2. Miller V, Mente A, Dehghen M, et al. Fruit, vegetable, and legume intake, and cardiovascular disease and deaths in 18 countries (PURE): a prospective cohort study. Lancet. 2017.

A Secondary Sanitary Revolution? What About the First One?

Water and sanitation is being taken increasingly seriously in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs). This is a good thing because, despite improved treatment of diarrhoea and vaccination against rotavirus,[1] gastrointestinal diseases are one of the two biggest causes of death in children under the age of five.[2] Yet recent evaluations of water and sanitation interventions show patchy results [3] and are overall disappointing.[4] [5] Very few studies have been done in urban areas, but infant death rates in slums are unconscionably high.[6]

Why are water and sanitation interventions so disappointing in the LMICs of today when the Sanitary Revolution around the turn of the 19th century was so successful? Well it turns out that the Sanitary Revolution was a bit of a myth – Thomas McKeown, Professor of Social Medicine at the University of Birmingham, caused quite a stir by pointing this out in the 1970s.[7] The ‘historical epidemiology’ of this time period is intensely interesting. While sequential chlorination of water in North American cities in the early years of the 1900s was associated with corresponding dramatic drops in the incidence of typhoid fever,[8] establishment of water and sanitation in the Netherlands [9] and Estonia [10] produced no benefit whatsoever on gastrointestinal deaths. Only one-third of the reduction in gastrointestinal-related deaths observed in around the turn of the 18th century Germany could be attributed to water and sanitation improvements.[9]
So why do water and sanitation interventions produce such variable, and often disappointing, benefits? In rural India this can often be attributed to low use of facilities, but little or no health benefit has been observed, even when uptake has been high. A number of (non-exclusive) theories can be adduced:

1) The inadequate dose theory. This holds that the type of intervention deployed in LMICs has generally been inadequate. For example, pit latrines (classed as ‘improved sewerage’ by the UN) do not clean up the environment adequately.[11] Similarly, water pipes may be installed, but the water may be contaminated en route.[12] St Petersburg is a notorious example.

2) The tipping point theory. This theory is an elaboration of the above inadequate dose theory and postulates a non-linear relationship between the intensity, type of water and sanitation (facility), and coverage of interventions and health, with increasing and then decreasing returns to scale as shown in Figure 1. By this theory, many interventions (such as pit latrines) simply fail to reach the ‘tipping point’, especially in densely inhabited city areas.

085 DCB A Secondary Sanitary Revolution Fig 1

3) The deep contamination theory (Figure 2). By this theory contamination follows many routes and becomes embedded in local communities, with transmission routes that are frequently replenished, so that garbage dumps, flies, nappies, soil and the human gut all act as repositories of infection. Food may be contaminated along its supply chain, as well as in preparation. Floods sweep sewage out of drains and back into communities. Cleaning up such an environment moves the tipping point (shown in Figure 1) to the right (meaning it is harder to reach) and may also take time to effect – a point to which we return.


4) The multiple agent hypothesis. By this theory some germs are more easily eradicated than others. Typhoid is waterborne, but, unlike cholera, it cannot replicate in water. Ensuring uncontaminated water may be enough to eradicate this particular problem. However, hookworms are at the other end of the spectrum, since they can be carried asymptomatically and linger in soil. There is even some evidence that organisms gain virulence as they are passed rapidly from host to host.[13] So this theory predicts that some types of infection might decrease more rapidly than others in response to an intervention. Moreover, some real gains, with respect to some type of serious infection, might be obscured by little or no change in more common, but less serious infections.

5) The multiple causes theory. This theory relies on evidence that malnutrition and gastrointestinal infections are self-reinforcing. Certainly malnutrition is associated with an altered microbiome, which, in turn, reduces absorption of food, creating a vicious cycle.[14] The microbiome affects the immune system, which, in turn, affects resistance to infection.

6) The ‘double-handed’ hygiene hypothesis. Hygiene can compensate for dirty water and a contaminated environment, and some of the most consistently effective interventions in LMICs have been based on improved hygiene and near use decontamination.[4] [15] On the other hand, hygiene does not seem important in places where exposure to harmful pathogens is low and, in such circumstances, hygiene may be too fastidious, leading to allergic illnesses.

7) The insensitive outcome hypothesis. Measuring the health benefit of sanitation is not unproblematic – the standard question on diarrhoea enquires about loose stools over a three-day period, and the measurement error appears to be large.[16] An account of blood in stools, signifying dysentery (Shigella and amoeba) is more specific, but is much rarer, leading to imprecision (lack of statistical power). Anthropological measurements reflect long-term conditions, and many factors, including gastrointestinal infections and malnutrition (see above), and also age of weaning, birth weight, and mother’s weight (inter-generational effects). We are working on designing a better (equally sensitive, but more specific and less reactive) method to measure gastrointestinal health.[17]

There may well be an element of truth in all these hypotheses. If a fully functioning water and sewerage system was installed, lanes paved and drained, and garbage eliminated, then there would probably be an impressive and rapid improvement in gastrointestinal health, especially if malnutrition was also tackled. But the same water and sewerage system would probably have moderate and delayed benefits if not accompanied by the other measures mentioned. What nutrition and vaccination would achieve without water and sanitation is unknown, but as they are less expensive, the experiment should be tried in places where water and sanitation improvements are some time away. In-depth study of transmission routes will help explicate some of the other theories postulated and careful comparative studies will help identify the tipping point for the most cost-effective solutions. What is for sure is that science has a role to play in unravelling the process by which we may achieve a Second Sanitary Revolution.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


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  17. Lilford RJ. Protocol to Test Hypothesis That Streptococcal Infections and Their Sequelae Have Risen in Incidence Over the Last 14 Years in England. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 13 January 2017.