According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) diarrhoea is a leading killer of children, accounting for approximately 8 per cent of all deaths among children under age 5 worldwide in 2016. This translates to over 1,300 young children dying each day, or about 480,000 children a year, despite the availability of simple effective treatment.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines diarrhoea as the passage of three or more loose or watery stool per day. Globally, there are nearly 1.7 billion cases of diarrhoea every year. From recent reports, Africa and Asia are home to more than 80 per cent of child deaths due to diarrhoea. Just 15 countries account for almost three quarters of all deaths from diarrhoea among children under five years of age annually with over half of the deaths occuring in just five countries: India, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Ethiopia.
But why are children more vulnerable to get diarrhoea? Children are only more susceptible to diarrhoea than adults. According to experts this may be due to the lack of development in their immune systems.
Research has shown that children with poor nutritional status, dehydration and those exposed to poor environmental conditions, are more susceptible to severe diarrhoea. Children are also at greater risk than adults of life-threatening dehydration since water constitutes a greater proportion of children’s bodyweight. Moreover, young children use more water over the course of a day given their higher metabolic rates, and their kidneys are less able to conserve water compared to older children and adults.
Since 2004, UNICEF and WHO have recommended treating childhood diarrhoea by replacing lost fluid through oral rehydration therapy. Along with continued feeding, oral rehydration salts (ORS) and zinc supplements are the recommended methods for treating diarrhoea.
There are cases where too many children are not receiving adequate care for diarrhoea in high-burden sub-Saharan African countries, even among those seen in health facilities. Overall, stakeholders have called for more action.
Consequently, stakeholders have stressed that global campaigns to fight diarrhoea – the second deadliest illness for children must be re-energised to prevent the deaths of millions in the developing world. Dr. Ellie Cannon, a medical expert in London, explained that while in a large majority of cases, diarrhoea will often pass without treatment after 5-7 days. She added that there are a number of steps that parents can take to reduce the severity of their child’s symptoms and protect them from any further harm. “It is very important to make sure your little one remains well hydrated. Even if they are vomiting and struggling to keep things down, little sips of water will help to make sure your child does not become dehydrated. It is best to avoid fizzy drinks or fruit juices because they can make the diarrhoea worse”.
It is noteworthy to highlight that the World Health Organisation (WHO) includes exclusive breast-feeding as one of the ways to prevent childhood diarrhoea. Studies have shown that breastfed babies get diarrhoea less often than formula-fed babies. Since breast milk is full of antibodies, it helps protect infants against some of the common childhood illnesses including diarrhoea. Plus, if a baby is breastfeeding as his primary source of nutrition, his exposure to organisms in food and water that can cause stomach infections and diarrhoea is limited.
Another recommendation is improving access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, as well as promoting good hygiene; they are key components in preventing diarrhoea. Yet, a recent WHO/UNICEF report indicated that an estimated 2.5 billion people were lacking improved sanitation facilities. Moreover, nearly 1 in 4 people in developing countries were practising indiscriminate or open defecation. This must be addressed as the benefits of improving water supply and sanitation cannot be over-emphasised.
It is imperative to state that while social and environmental factors including dirty feeding bottles, inadequate disposal of faeces and household refuse, and poor storage of drinking water were found to be significantly related to the high incidence of the disease, the importance of educational interventions is very vital. Stakeholders have argued that educating members of the family, children and community at large on the need of staying healthy is paramount. There are a number of ways to stay healthy – by washing of hands, good oral health, regular physical activity, and eating healthy foods among others.