Maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health

WHO and UNICEF launch strategy to prevent and treat diarrhoea

14 October 2009

Global campaigns to fight diarrhoea - the second deadliest illness for children – must be re-energized to prevent the deaths of millions in the developing world, UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a new report on the disease released on 14 October 2009.

The report, entitled “Diarrhoea: Why Children Are Still Dying and What Can Be Done,” lays out a seven-point plan that includes a treatment package to reduce childhood diarrhoea deaths and a prevention strategy to ensure long-term results:

  • Fluid replacement to prevent dehydration;
  • Zinc treatment;
  • Rotavirus and measles vaccinations;
  • Promotion of early and exclusive breastfeeding and vitamin A supplementation;
  • Promotion of hand washing with soap;
  • Improved water supply quantity and quality, including treatment and safe storage of household water; and
  • Community-wide sanitation promotion.

“It is a tragedy that diarrhoea, which is little more than an inconvenience in the developed world, kills an estimated 1. 5 million children each year,” said UNICEF Executive Director, Ann M. Veneman. “Inexpensive and effective treatments for diarrhoea exist, but in developing countries only 39 per cent of children with diarrhoea receive the recommended treatment.”

Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO, said: “We know where children are dying of diarrhoea. We know what must be done to prevent those deaths. We must work with governments and partners to put this seven-point plan into action."

Campaigns targeting childhood diarrhoea in the 1970s and 1980s achieved success by scaling up the use of oral rehydration salts (ORS) solution to prevent dehydration and by educating caregivers. In spite of the promising results of these campaigns, in recent years the international community has shifted its focus to other global emergencies. There is now an urgent need to focus once more on preventing and treating diarrhoea.

WHO and UNICEF recommend treating diarrhoea with low-osmolarity ORS and zinc tablets, which decrease the severity and duration of the attack. These treatments are simple, inexpensive and life-saving.

Access to clean water and good hygiene practices are extremely effective in preventing childhood diarrhoea. Hand washing with soap has been shown to reduce the incidence of diarrhoeal disease by over 40 per cent, making it one of the most cost-effective interventions for reducing child deaths from this neglected killer.

Yet despite the known benefits of improving water supply and sanitation, some 88 per cent of diarrhoeal diseases worldwide are attributable to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. As of 2006, an estimated 2.5 billion people were not using improved sanitation facilities, and nearly 1 in every 4 people in developing countries was practicing open defecation.