What if we lost 32 school buses full of children today? That’s 2,195 children—the number who die daily of diarrhea around the world. That’s more than die from AIDS, malaria, and measles combined.
As World Water Day approaches on March 22, we should consider water’s role in those deaths—and what we can do to prevent them. About 88% of diarrhea-associated deaths are attributable to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and insufficient hygiene. Yet most diarrheal deaths are preventable using simple, low-cost interventions.
Diarrhea: common illness, global killer
Diarrheal diseases account for 1 in 9 child deaths worldwide, making diarrhea the second leading cause of death among children under the age of 5. For children with HIV, diarrhea is even more deadly; the death rate for these children is 11 times higher than the rate for children without HIV.
Despite these sobering statistics, strides made over the last 20 years have shown that, in addition to rotavirus vaccination and breastfeeding, diarrhea prevention focused on safe water and improved hygiene and sanitation is not only possible, but cost effective: every $1 invested yields an average return of $25.50.
We know what works
Simple and inexpensive interventions to prevent and treat diarrhea can save the lives of children around the world. Proven ways to tackle diarrhea include:
- Vaccinate for rotavirus
- Provide safe water and adequate sanitation and human waste disposal
- Promote handwashing with soap and breastfeeding to reduce exposure to contaminated water
- Treat diarrhea appropriately with oral rehydration therapy and antibiotics
- Train health care providers and community health workers on diarrhea treatment
- Educate mothers and caretakers about caring for ill children and when to seek medical assistance
- Build laboratory diagnostic capability and identify the causes of diarrhea
CDC in action
CDC works with partners, including government agencies, the World Health Organization, foreign Ministries of Health, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations to:
- Make water safe to drink and use: Promoting safe water through CDC’s Safe Water System, which allows individuals, health workers, and schoolteachers to treat and safely store water in homes, health facilities, and schools, and Water Safety Plans, which identify water quality threats in community water systems and water utilities, while implementing solutions to those threats.
- Improve hygiene and sanitation: Improving the efficacy, sustainability, and integration of hygiene and sanitation interventions into communities and institutions, such as schools.
- Respond to complex international emergencies and outbreaks: Deploying emergency response and outbreak investigation teams at the request of foreign governments and U.N. agencies.
- Control and eliminate disease: Identifying water, sanitation, and hygiene-related factors needed to control or eliminate Neglected Tropical Diseases like Guinea worm disease, trachoma, and intestinal worm infections, which impact hundreds of millions of people around the world.
- Identify and characterize disease: Investigating the causes of illness, such as diarrhea, to provide critical health data for decision making.
- Educate and train about global water, sanitation, and hygiene: Developing model programs and materials for public health and medical staff training and community health promotion.
To prevent diarrhea around the world, we must work together at all levels, using effective interventions and proven treatments. From government investments in safe water infrastructure to individuals treating their household water and promoting handwashing in their communities, we can all do our part to prevent diarrhea and save lives.