Despite the existence of inexpensive and efficient means of treatment, diarrhoea kills more children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined, according to a report issued today by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO).
The report, titled Diarrhoea: Why Children Are Still Dying and What Can Be Done, includes information on the causes of diarrhoea, data on access to means of prevention and treatment, and a seven-point plan to reduce diarrhoea deaths.
“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."
Diarrhoea is a common symptom of gastrointestinal infection, which can have a variety of sources. However just a handful of organisms are responsible for most acute cases of diarrhoea and one, Rotavirus, is responsible for more than 40 per cent of all diarrhoea-related hospital admissions of children under five. A new vaccine for Rotavirus has been found to be safe and effective but is still largely unavailable in most developing countries.
Though most episodes of childhood diarrhoea are mild, acute cases can lead to significant fluid loss and dehydration. This dehydration can lead to death unless fluids are quickly replaced. Oral rehydration therapy is the cornerstone of fluid replacement and the new low-osmolarity formula of oral rehydration salts (ORS) is a simple, inexpensive and life-saving remedy that prevents dehydration in children suffering diarrhoea.
Some 88 percent of diarrhoeal deaths worldwide are attributable to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. As of 2006, an estimated 2.5 billion people around the world were not using adequate sanitation facilities, and about 1 in 4 people in developing countries practiced open defecation.
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 caused by this neglected killer.
The overall health and nutrition of children is also critical to their susceptibility to diarrhoea and the damage it can cause. Undernourished children are at higher risk of suffering more frequent, severe and prolonged episodes of diarrhoea, and repeated bouts of diarrhoea also place children at greater risk of worsening nutritional status.
The seven point plan to save the lives of children stricken by diarrhoea includes two treatment and five prevention elements.
The two treatment elements are:
1. fluid replacement to prevent dehydration; and
2. zinc treatments, which decrease the severity and duration of the attack.
The five prevention elements are:
1. immunization against rotavirus and measles;
2. early and exclusive breastfeeding and vitamin A supplementation;
3. handwashing with soap;
4. improved water supply quantity and quality; and
5. promoting community-wide sanitation.
Campaigns targeting childhood diarrhoea in the 1970s and 1980s achieved success by educating caregivers and scaling up oral rehydration therapy to prevent dehydration. The campaigns delivered promising results but following that success, focus shifted to other health problems. There is now an urgent need to shift attention and resources back to treating and preventing diarrhoea.
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