The role of scientists in society: thoughts on cholera reduction using sari-cloth.

If you are searching for sarcasm in the following sentences, you will be disappointed. What you will find is sincere appreciation for two landmark scientific studies. In an extreme example of social asymmetry, while privileged individuals can debate whether or not to drink purified bottled water, over one billion others on this planet do not have access to clean drinking water.

I do not need to introduce cholera and other waterborne diseases to anyone from South Asia. These diseases infect hundreds of thousands (and possibly millions) in India and neighboring Bangladesh alone.

We have made strides in eradicating these diseases. In 1854, the British physician John Snow successfully traced the source of a cholera outbreak to a region of London in what is generally considered the first ever epidemiological study. Years later, one of the founding figures of microbiology, Robert Koch isolated and characterized the bacterium that causes cholera. Koch was also able to isolate cholera from contaminated pond water used by a community in India that was in the throes of a lethal epidermic. Koch published these results in the British Medical Journal in 1884 and won a Nobel Prize for other pioneering work on tuberculosis.

Now, a bit of background on the two research papers that I’d like to discuss today. Rita Colwell, a former director of the US National Science Foundation, is a renowned scientist who works on infectious diseases including cholera. In the 70s and 80s, her lab discovered that disease-causing cholera microbes clung to small organisms such as crustaceans in contaminated water. For reference, let me remind you that larger crustaceans that you are familiar with include crabs, shrimps, and lobsters.

Because of arsenic contaminated tube-well water, village populations in West Bengal, India and Bangladesh often drink surface water collected from rivers and ponds that contain small crustaceans. Boiling the water kills the disease-causing germs. On a personal note, I grew up drinking a lot of boiled water, but this approach isn’t feasible for poor people because of associated energy costs.

In a landmark scientific article published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2003, Colwell and others tested a simple hypothesis in the field. Villagers in India and Bangladesh often use sari-cloth to filter water before drinking. Colwell asked a tantalizing question: if cotton sari-cloth can filter out crustaceans, can also it reduce the concentration of cholera microbes below a disease-causing threshold? Using the scientific method, she and other scientists followed villagers in 65 villages in Bangladesh for three years, and found that the low-tech process of filtering water through a cotton sari folded four-times resulted in almost 50% reduction in the incidence of cholera!

Colwell didn’t stop there. Researchers kept collecting data for years. Now, in new research published this month in the new journal mBio, Colwell and colleagues show that 31% of the villagers still use sari filtration. Therefore, not only is this process effective, it is also sustainable. This point is worth bearing in mind for any application to truly have real-world implications.

You may wonder why I mention these two studies today. Call me hopelessly naive, but I sincerely believe that the role of a scientist – especially one hailing from a developing country such as India – is to participate in building a better society through honesty, ingenuity, and dedication. To give you a sense of how I felt reading the two papers authored by Colwell, let me provide an imprecise cinematic analogy. In Asutosh Gowarikar’s Swades, Mohan Bhargava, the NASA scientist (played by Shahrukh Khan) provided an outlandish solution to the problem of lack of electricity in a village in India. The resolution in the film was exceedingly implausible, but the message resonated with me. I fervently believe that scientists and engineers have the wherewithal to come up with ingenious low-cost solutions for problems facing people in South Asia. There are many other examples, but these two papers underscore my belief in science as the only “candle in the dark”.

Β© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban


21 thoughts on “The role of scientists in society: thoughts on cholera reduction using sari-cloth.

  1. I second you on that role of scientists thing…research should go in the improvement of human life and upping the ante against”fruitful” research rather than striving so hard and wasting on trivial metaphysics experiments

    1. Nish, this is a direct example, but often they aren’t so clear cut and it is hard to say.

      Many esoteric scientific experiments look trivial but many decades later, new technologies are built around them!

      It gives me an idea for another post.


      1. But still yaar i do not feel that an experiment is worth all the billions it untill it does something for the masses, especialy those on lower strata income level..

  2. A very informative article and loved the conclusion. Sawdes is one of the few Hindi movies I’ve watched and it touched me as well. There are many brilliant minds from our part of the world studying abroad and researching in their respective fields who are just waiting for a bit of encouragement to go back. Couple of my friends went back and they seem to be very pleased being able to contribute in whatever ways they can. And we don’t even need to go back… people are making contributions even from abroad.

    1. Thanks for reading, Shami. I still remember our long discussions on science, religion, and humanism on the “Speak your” discussion forum in 2003-2004.

      I am still trying to think of ways that I can contribute, but as you say there are many others doing their bit in their own way. Take care.

  3. A very good perspective this…i feel any indigenous method that is low cost and feasible has to be given more credits than it usually gets and some of these have not been learnt or taught but passed through generations.Especially the Ghareloo Nuskhe for all ailments starting with common cold ending even to something life threatening like Cancer.I know of a gentleman from my home town who used Urine therapy and is a hale and hearty and very satisfied octogenarian now.In facts looks in his 50’s rather than looking his real age.
    Thanks for this and thanks for stopping by on mine.I checked out and liked that Bangla song Madhumalathi Dakey aye…

  4. you may be interested in this foundation called Hole in the wall where this guy installs a computer screen and touchpad in the walls of remote villages and comes back after a month to find village children using the internet and teaching themselves english, science etc!

    Its really touching and a very simple solution (somewhat) to the problems of literacy and lack of teachers in villages!

  5. It’s fascinating how a cotton sari can be put to such great use.For a country like India where almost half the population is below the poverty line, these innovative low tech techniques are vital.But this also makes me wonder,how many of these techniques are being overlooked and dismissed as crazy practices?

  6. Excellent post. I too have read that article (well, I work on Vibrio cholerae…so had too!), but never thought about it with your perspective.


  7. That is fascinating. I hope the practice will spread!

    And it was very pleasant to read your nod to Carl Sagan at the end, there. You have an excellent blog, and I’m enjoying reading it very much.

    1. Thank you very much. I am indeed, flattered. My readers give me a lot of leeway. I am indebted to them for that and also for getting all my allusions (including the nod to Sagan). It is indeed, a pleasure writing for this educated crowd.

      Best to you, wherever you may be.


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