There are many ways to measure success, but for Amanda Barton of the Hope College nursing faculty saving young lives ranks right at the top.
An ongoing service and research project run cooperatively by the departments of nursing and engineering at Hope began in March 2006 with the goal of improving water quality in the village of Nkuv, Cameroon, and educating the local population about related health issues.
Nursing's initial survey of the population found that 100 percent of the children had some form of water-related disease, often manifested through diarrhea or even bloody diarrhea. The problem was so acute that experience had shown that four to six children under the age of five could be expected to die in any given six-month period.
The program established what seemed to be a realistic goal - cut the rate of diarrhea by more than 50 percent, and cut the deaths by the same amount, within three years.
It hasn't taken that long.
"We were able to cut the rate of diarrhea and bloody diarrhea by more than 50 percent within six months," said Barton, who is an assistant professor of nursing and is coordinating the interdepartmental effort with Dr. Jeff Brown of the college's engineering faculty. "Probably most significant is that we had no deaths - mortality was cut to zero percent."
The project began as a service project for the college's new student chapter of Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB-USA), which was established during the 2005-06 school year. Following the initial visit the team returned in May and December of 2006, and will be going back for three weeks this coming May.
It has also recently received a $40,215 grant from the National Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance. The award is through the alliance's Sustainable Vision program, which seeks to foster strong educational experiences for students; positive economic impact on a targeted population; ongoing partnerships capable of bringing about further change; growth that can be sustained; and documented processes that can be replicated elsewhere.
Providing clean water for the village has thus far focused on creating free-standing concrete-framed filters that use sand to remove particles and bacteria from the river water that the village uses. Dirty water is poured into the top and purified water emerges at the bottom. The sand itself filters some contaminants, but more importantly after a few weeks pass a layer of good bacteria forms that removes even more.
The Hope team has worked with the villagers to create several filters, and is now going to be providing training so that the people can make more on their own.
"They cost about $12 to build and they last 20 to 30 years with no further money put into them, and we know that they save lives when combined with health education," Barton said.
The engineers are also looking into creating a way of getting fresh water to the village. Currently, Barton said, for some of the villagers water is an hour's hike away, with villagers able to use only as much as they can carry.
"We know that the easier access that they have to water, the more they'll use water - and the better their health will be," she said.
Barton anticipates another important benefit. Water-gathering, she said, is assigned to the village's girls, and because they have to spend their time walking to and from the river to retrieve it they aren't able to attend school. She is hoping that a different system will allow them to get an education instead.
Even as the engineers continue to help improve the village's water supply, Barton noted that nursing will be continuing to work on issues of education. One important topic for the near future: dealing with human waste.
"They currently have no improved latrines," Barton said. "They're all open-pit latrines, and those are the worst - they're horrible in terms of health."
As with engineering and the filters, the nursing team will also be training the villagers so that they can in turn help educate others in the area and, in the end, making a lasting difference for not only Nkuv but the broader region.
"We want to train them to be able to go into other villages and do the health assessment and the training," Barton said.
"It's taking the work that we're doing and transferring it to the Cameroonians so that they can replicate it," she said. "It's really looking at sustainability."