In 1980, the first summer I worked on the White Mountain Apache reservation, a community of fewer than 10,000 people in Arizona, so many babies were dying of diarrhea that we buried one every week.
To combat this major problem, we trained community outreach workers to give oral rehydration solution (ORS)—a mixture of sugar, salt and safe water—to babies and young children sick with severe, dehydrating diarrhea. Over time the practice spread and diarrhea deaths in the community dropped to nearly zero.
Proven solutions like ORS, vaccines and better sanitation and hygiene have dramatically reduced childhood diarrhea deaths around the world—from 5 million deaths in 1980 to 600,000 today.
But it’s not just deaths we have to worry about. Illnesses are a major issue too. As the rate of diarrhea deaths have dramatically come down, incidence has barely decreased at all. Children continue to experience an average of three episodes of diarrhea each year. A case of severe diarrhea, especially during important development stages in a child’s life, can have a lasting impact on physical and cognitive growth. Diarrhea can also make children more susceptible to death from other causes like pneumonia.
Recently, at TropMed in Philadelphia, recent progress in global efforts to protect children from diarrhea was hailed and the unfinished agenda highlighted.
Here are four critical things we need to do to protect children from diarrhea:
1. Expand access to ORS.
Children sick with severe diarrhea can be fully rehydrated within a few hours when provided with ORS. However, only one-third of children in low- and middle-income countries who need ORS get it.
2. Improve nutrition and be sure to feed children suffering from diarrhea to stop the vicious cycle of malnutrition and diarrhea.
Malnutrition weakens immune systems, making children more vulnerable to infections like diarrhea. Diarrhea, in turn, prevents children from absorbing nutrients, contributing to malnutrition. This creates a vicious cycle. Because of malnutrition, one in five children worldwide is moderately to severely stunted. Children with two to three diarrheal disease infections a year suffer an average of 8 cm growth loss and a 10 IQ point loss.
Making the situation worse, many caregivers withhold food from children and babies when they are suffering from diarrhea. It is very important to continue feeding children appropriate food during an episode of diarrhea.
3. Vaccinate all children against rotavirus, the leading cause of severe and deadly diarrhea.
Rotavirus causes 40% of diarrhea hospitalizations—and 200,000 deaths in children under 5 each year. Unlike other forms of diarrhea, rotavirus infections cannot be controlled by hygiene and sanitation alone. Vaccines are essential to prevention.
Two rotavirus vaccines are available and have been internationally licensed since 2006. These vaccines are currently used in the national immunization programs of nearly 80 countries. Despite this, only 15 % of the children in Gavi countries—the world’s poorest—have access to this life saving vaccine. Even in countries where rotavirus vaccines are used, the poorest children often do not get vaccinated.
In the US, use of rotavirus vaccines led to a striking decline in rotavirus-related hospitalizations. In some years, there are almost no cases observed. Yet because coverage is still not routinely high (it’s varies geographically from 59-88% now), the accumulation of unvaccinated infants periodically leads to outbreaks. In the US, rotavirus vaccine coverage must be improved.
Worldwide, more than 90 million children still don’t have access to rotavirus vaccines. In countries where the most diarrhea deaths occur, almost none have introduced the rotavirus vaccine, despite considerable evidence of its public health impact, cost saving potential and the prospect of introduction support from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
Public health impact has been dramatic in low- and middle-income countries where rotavirus vaccines have been introduced. In Mexico, the vaccine led to a decrease by 50% in diarrheal deaths in children under 5.
Countries that do not already include the rotavirus vaccine in their national immunization program should consider the striking public health and economic benefits and take steps to introduce it as soon as possible. Countries that do, should work to ensure good coverage.
4. Develop new, low-cost rotavirus vaccines to help reach all children.
New rotavirus vaccines are in the pipeline and could help to accelerate coverage. Companies in China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam are developing new vaccines with prices as low as US$1.00 per dose for governments (such as Bharat Biotech’s ROTAVAC, which India is rolling out soon in four states). There are not yet enough doses of these new vaccines to cover all children in the countries where they are being produced, much less the millions of children around the world who are in need of this vaccine. Yet with new product licensures expected as soon as 2017, the product landscape could be quite different very soon.
One thousand children per day still die from diarrhea—a preventable tragedy. We’ve made progress, but we can do much better.
As Nobel Laurate Gabriela Mistral said:
"We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow,’ his name is today.”
The Integrated Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Pneumonia and Diarrhea goal is to reduce mortality from diarrhea in children under 5 to fewer than 1 per 1,000 live births. This is a very ambitious goal but we know it is possible as long as the public health community can work together and garner political support. We need to make it happen.
To learn more about how you can get involved, visit this page.