How CNN’s Wall-to-Wall ‘Poop Ship’ Coverage Failed To Highlight a Pressing Global Health Issue

CNN and other news networks missed an ideal opportunity this week to highlight the actual public health risk that poor sanitation conditions pose to millions of people around the world.

The insane amount of time CNN spent over the last several days capturing footage and breathlessly reporting on the travails of the passengers aboard a disabled cruise ship — over 700 minutes worth — has already been mocked mercilessly. The main focus of the anchors’ concern were the atrocious sanitary conditions that had developed once a fire took out the ship’s engines. At one point described as a “floating petri dish,” the ship was completely unable to process sewage, leading to leaks throughout the halls of the vessel and passengers sleeping above deck to escape the smell.

For all of the laughs the seeming absurdity of the coverage has generated, it belies an actual crisis that people live through every day across the globe. As of 2011, 2.6 billion people around the world lacked access to adequate sanitation globally according to the World Health Organization. That leads to defecation in areas where it can flow into water sources, which in turn opens the door to exposure to water-born diseases like diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and hepatitis A.

One the Millennium Development Goals by the United Nations in 20000 — specificallyGoal 7, Target 10 — calls for the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking-water and basic sanitation to be cut in half by 2015. Unfortunately, that goal isn’t close to being achieved, according to a March 2012 report’s warning:

The report highlights, however, that the world is still far from meeting the MDG target for sanitation, and is unlikely to do so by 2015. Only 63% of the world now have improved sanitation access, a figure projected to increase only to 67% by 2015, well below the 75% aim in the MDGs. [...] In rural areas in least developed countries, 97 out of every 100 people do not have piped water and 14% of the population drinks surface water – for example, from rivers, ponds, or lakes.

Bill Gates, through his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has been working to help even those odds. Last year, Gates held what was dubbed the Reinvent the Toilet Fair, soliciting designs for low-cost toilets that don’t require water or a sewage system to function and cost no more than five cents a day to operate. The winning design was solar-powered and generates hydrogen gas and electricity, which the Foundation hopes to have operational in a community by 2015.

For now, though, gallons of raw sewage flow into the Ganges river in India every day and millions of people die on the African continent for lack of sanitation. In choosing to focus on the plight of those people who live through the conditions that those on Carnival “cruise from hell” experienced every day, CNN missed a prime opportunity to reveal to their viewers a set of living conditions they’d never dreamed still existed.

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