Maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health

Childhood diarrhoea: a major priority for research

1 April 2009

WHO's Department of Child and Adolescent Health and Development (CAH), in consultation with global experts, has identified priorities for research on diarrhoea - the cause of almost 20% of child deaths globally. The list of research questions focus on how to make the best use of interventions that are available today, in order to make the most difference, and ultimately save as many children's lives as possible.

Each year, nearly two million children die from diarrhoea. Despite the persistently high burden of disease, research into childhood diarrhoea has been steadily decreasing since the 1980s. Funds available for research into diarrhoea are much lower than those devoted to other diseases that cause comparatively few deaths.

While a lot is already known about effective treatments for diarrhoea, we still lack critical knowledge on how to make sure the children who need it most get access to that treatment. WHO has led a process to identify which types of research are most needed and would have greatest impact on mortality. The resulting top 20% of research questions are mainly targeted at better understanding the barriers to implementation, effectiveness and optimizing the use of available interventions and programmes such as ORS and zinc, exclusive breastfeeding and the integrated management of childhood illness. However, very few donor agencies presently recognize the importance of these domains of health research. A paper published in the March edition of the journal PLoS Medicine, by CAH staff member Dr. Olivier Fontaine et al., describes in detail, the process undertaken to arrive at the list of priority research questions.

At the time of publication of this article, CAH reached out to the world's mainstream media with the message about diarrhoea research, and achieved considerable positive coverage, with over 150 news outlets around the globe covering the story.

Similar exercises have been conducted by CAH to identify priorities for research on other "neglected" childhood diseases, including Acute Respiratory Infections, birth asphyxia, neonatal sepsis, and low birth weight. A meeting of major supporters of child health research convened by CAH at the end of March 2009 was used to share the list of research priorities identified for these topics, to identify a subset of priority research issues to be addressed in order to achieve MDG4, and to identify sources of support for the agreed research questions.