ANCHORAGE - A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study links the lack of indoor plumbing in Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages to higher rates of pneumonia and other diseases in children.
The Anchorage Daily News reports the study found disease rates three times higher in villages without running water for flushing toilets and washing hands.
The director of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Dr. Rosalyn Singleton, who contributed to the study, says about 15 percent of Yukon-Kuskokwim babies are hospitalized each year for some form of pneumonia.
The region is home to some of the poorest, most crowded households in the state, according to the study published in the March edition of "The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal."
It found Alaska Native children younger than 5 years old in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region are five to 10 times more likely to suffer from a bacterial illness called invasive pneumococcal disease than other Alaska kids.
Between 1.7 and 2.5 percent of Alaska children with the disease died between 1996 and 2007, according to the report.
While prevalent among children, the illness is also particularly dangerous for elderly people with chronic lung disease.
The disease can lead to meningitis and blood infections as well, Singleton said.
"We've always known that having running water and flush toilets in your home was beneficial. But now we're starting to learn that the health benefit might be even greater than we've ever known," said Troy Ritter, senior environmental health consultant for the tribal health consortium.
Plumbing projects are expensive and difficult to build in remote villages where materials must be shipped by barge or plane and the frozen or soggy ground prevents easy construction.
Alaska leaders have talked about bringing flush toilets and running water to villages for decades but in many corners of the state many families still haul their waste in honey buckets and haul drinking water in plastic drums from central wells or even lakes or rivers.
The health consortium and state Village Safe Water Program are planning dozens of construction projects this summer with the aid of federal stimulus money to repair or improve existing plumbing systems and build new ones, Ritter said.
"Providing water service in a rural village is very expensive. But so is providing medical treatment," he said.