How common is diarrhoea in children?


Diarrhoeal disease is one of the leading causes of death in children around the world. Diarrhoea kills 1,300 young children every day, with most deaths from diarrhoea occurring among children less than two years of age living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Worldwide, over 780 million people lack access to clean, uncontaminated drinking water, while 2.5 billion people don’t have access to proper sanitation (e.g. clean toilets). This is why diarrhoeal disease is more common in lower-income countries, where the majority of people don’t have access to safe drinking water, uncontaminated food and proper healthcare.

In South Africa, diarrhoeal disease is one of the leading causes of morbidity (illness) and mortality (death), accounting for a staggering 20% of all deaths in children under five years of age. The 2010 General Household Survey (GHS) showed that there were over 60,000 cases of childhood diarrhoea per month and approximately 9,000 child diarrhoeal deaths in the same year.

Studies show that diarrhoeal disease is closely linked to:

  • Socio-economic status. The more impoverished the community is, the higher the risk of diarrhoeal disease. Studies have shown that South African children who live in poverty are 10 times more likely to die from diarrhoeal disease than their more privileged counterparts.
  • Children who have poor food security, poor nutritional status, poor environmental conditions (e.g. poor sanitation and pollution), and who are ill (e.g. as a result of HIV/AIDS) are more susceptible to severe diarrhoeal disease and dehydration.
  • Children who are under five years of age are more susceptible than their older counterparts.
  • Children who haven’t received all their vaccinations are more susceptible than children who have received their vaccinations on time as well as those who have received growth monitoring, vitamin A supplements, and other healthcare initiatives aimed at reducing diarrhoea rates.

Reviewed by Kim Hofmann, registered dietitian, BSc Medical (Honours) Nutrition and Dietetics, BSc (Honours) Psychology. August 2018.

Image credit: iStock

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