DiarrhoeaDiarrhoea is defined as the passage of three or more loose or liquid stools per day (or more frequent passage than is normal for the individual). Frequent passing of formed stools is not diarrhoea, nor is the passing of loose, “pasty” stools by breastfed babies. When diarrhoea lasts more than a few days, your body loses too much water and salt. If death occurs, it is most likely due to dehydration.

According to UNICEF diarrhoea is a leading killer of children, accounting for 9 per cent of all deaths among children under age 5 worldwide in 2015. This translates to over 1,400 young children dying each day, or about 526,000 children a year, despite the availability of simple effective treatment. Worldwide, 780 million individuals lack access to improved drinking-water and 2.5 billion lack improved sanitation. Diarrhoea due to infection is widespread throughout developing countries.

In developing countries, children under three years old experience on average three episodes of diarrhoea every year. Each episode deprives the child of the nutrition necessary for growth. As a result, diarrhoea is a major cause of malnutrition, and malnourished children are more likely to fall ill from diarrhoea.

Types of diarrhoea

Acute diarrhoea: If an episode of diarrhoea lasts less than 14 days, it is acute diarrhoea. Acute watery diarrhoea causes dehydration and contributes to malnutrition. The death of a child with acute diarrhoea is usually due to dehydration.

Persistent diarrhoea: If the diarrhoea lasts 14 days or more, it is persistent diarrhoea. Up to 20% of episodes of diarrhoea become persistent. Persistent diarrhoea often causes nutritional problems, creating the risk of malnutrition and serious non-intestinal infection. Dehydration also occurs.

Dysentery: Diarrhoea with blood in the stool with or without mucus is called dysentery. Dysentery is very dangerous because of its ability to lead to anorexia, rapid weight loss, and damage to the intestinal mucosa. Another danger is sepsis.


  • Poor sanitation: Diarrhoea is a symptom aggravated by poor personal hygiene. When there is a shortage of adequate sanitation and hygiene, a host of bacterial, viral and parasitic organisms can spread. Food is another major cause of diarrhoea when it is prepared or stored in unhygienic conditions. Rotavirus and Escherichia coli are the two most common etiological agents of diarrhoea in developing countries.
  • Malnutrition: Children who die from diarrhoea often suffer from underlying malnutrition, which makes them more vulnerable to diarrhoea. Each diarrhoeal episode, in turn, makes their malnutrition even worse. Diarrhoea is a leading cause of malnutrition in children under five years old.
  • Contaminated water: Water contaminated with human faeces for example from municipal sewage, septic tanks and latrines is of special concern. For example, water from sewage, septic tanks and latrines, is of particular concern. Animal faeces also contain microorganisms that can cause diarrhoea.
  • Person to person: Diarrhoeal disease can also spread from person-to-person, aggravated by poor personal hygiene. Water can contaminate food during irrigation. Fish and seafood from polluted water may also contribute to the disease.

How can Diarrhoea be prevented?

  • improving access to clean water and safe sanitation
  • promoting hygiene education
  • exclusive breast-feeding
  • improved weaning practices
  • immunising all children; especially against measles
  • using latrines
  • keeping food and water clean
  • washing hands with soap (the baby’s as well) before touching food
  • and by sanitary disposal of stools
Gabriel Ifinnwa with Agency Reports

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