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Asia has some of the world’s major health problems. These are compounded by widespread ignorance of basic sanitation concepts and, in some areas, by high population densities. In Southeast, South, and Southwest Asia, subtropical and tropical climates favor the development and survival of parasites in soils, water, and hosts (insects, animals, and humans that carry the parasites). Streams are often used for sewage disposal in the southern parts of Asia. Where these same streams are also used for drinking and bathing water, they are a source of chronic infections. Sanitary conditions are improving, especially in cities, as international aid programs give high priority to health problems caused by the environment. Construction of better drinking water facilities—together with improved systems of sewage disposal, rubbish collection, and wastewater drainage—is helping create healthier settlements.
Untreated human manure is used as a fertilizer on some farms in East and Southeast Asia, contributing to the spread of disease. In recent years, sanitary practices in China have been greatly improved by first treating human manure before adding it to soils.
The major diseases of Asia include cholera, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, poliomyelitis, amebic and bacillary dysentery, and malaria. Cholera, caused by a bacterium usually transmitted through polluted water, has existed in Asia for centuries.
Elephantiasis, which is common in the tropical areas of India and China, is another disease that occurs in Asia. The parasitic worms that cause this disease are usually carried by mosquitoes, which are also the hosts of the organisms that cause malaria. Although not always successful, enormous efforts have been made to eliminate mosquitoes in many areas by the use of insecticides.
The spread of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome(AIDS) is a growing threat in Asia, particularly in South and Southeast Asia. Many countries do not keep accurate statistics of AIDS cases, either because they lack the health services to track the disease, or because they deny that AIDS is a significant problem. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) of the United Nations (UN) estimates that in the late 1990s 5.8 million people in South and Southeast Asia had AIDS or were infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.
Millions of people in Asia are infected with hookworms, which typically cause malnutrition and a lack of energy. Malnutrition itself causes diseases, including kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency that stunts the growth of children and occasionally causes their death. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has attempted to combat the problem of protein deficiency in many ways, including encouraging ocean fishing and fish farming, the use of powdered milk, and the production of milk-like products from protein-rich soybeans. The WHO has attacked the problems of health more directly: Mass inoculations and international quarantines have helped control many diseases, and smallpox has been wiped out in Asia.
The quality of health care systems varies in Asia. The most advanced systems of health delivery are found in Japan, Israel, and Russia. Singapore and Hong Kong also have good systems and a ratio, respectively, of one doctor for every 714 and 758 people. In Cambodia the impact of war and genocide has left the country with just one doctor for every 6,400 people. Countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines have more than 5,000 people per doctor.
Many Asians seek traditional healers for treatment of a wide range of illnesses. Chinese traditional medicine is probably the best-known alternative to Western medicine. Techniques such as acupuncture, acupressure, and the use of herbal medicines are widely used by Chinese people throughout Asia, and many of these techniques are practiced in Western countries.