Diarrhoeal disease is the second leading cause of death in children under five years old, and was responsible for the deaths of 370,000 children in 2019. The most severe threat posed by diarrhoea is dehydration. During an episode of diarrhoea, water and electrolytes including sodium, chloride, potassium and bicarbonate are lost through liquid stools, vomit, sweat, urine and breathing. A person with diarrhoea becomes dehydrated when these losses are not replaced. In addition, diarrhoea is a major cause of malnutrition, making the person more susceptible to future bouts of diarrhoea and to other diseases.
There are three clinical types of diarrhoea, each with its specific treatments:
- Acute watery diarrhoea, which may last several hours or days, and includes cholera.
- Acute bloody diarrhoea, also called dysentery.
- Persistent diarrhoea, lasting 14 days or longer.
In the past, for most children, severe dehydration and fluid loss were the main causes of dying from diarrhoea. Now, other causes such as septic bacterial infections are likely to account for an increasing proportion of all diarrhoea-associated deaths.
Exclusive breastfeeding is protective and prevents diarrhoea from occurring in young children. Breastfeeding also reduces the severity of diarrhoea.
Innovative activities and demand creation are important for achieving behaviour change and sustaining long-term preventive practices to combat preventable morbidity and mortality from diarrhoeal diseases.