How to prevent and manage diarrhoea in children


Parents can take several steps to help prevent frequent episodes of diarrhoeal disease in children:

Vaccinate for rotavirus

Rotavirus is a viral infection that tends to peak during the winter months in South Africa. Worldwide, it’s the leading cause of severe diarrhoea in children under 5 years of age. Infants and young children between the ages of 3 months and 2 years are at high risk of severe rotavirus disease.   

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that rotavirus vaccines should be included in all national immunisation programmes and considered a priority. The South African Department of Health has adopted this recommendation and all children are given the vaccination routinely as part of the Expanded Program of Immunization (EPI).

Make sure your child is given the vaccination at 6 weeks of age and again at 14 weeks. Studies in South Africa have shown the vaccine to be effective in preventing severe rotavirus disease by 77%.

Vaccinate for measles

Children who are undernourished or have compromised immune systems may experience serious side effects from a measles infection, including diarrhoea. In fact, diarrhoea is one of the most common causes of death associated with measles worldwide.

As measles is a highly contagious disease, vaccination is recommended. The measles vaccine can be given on its own or in combination, as with the MMR vaccine.

Vitamin A supplementation

Vitamin A plays a role in promoting the immune system and reducing the severity of infections. If your child hasn’t received vitamin A supplementation as part of the Department of Health initiative, it’s important to speak to your doctor about supplementation, especially if your child has suffered from recent episodes of diarrhoeal disease.

Other practical tips

Preventing diarrhoeal disease also includes the following practical steps:

  • Always give your child clean, safe water to drink (boiled and cooled down, if necessary)
  • Breastfeed your baby as this helps to prevent diarrhoea; it will also help your child to recover if he or she does get sick
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water, especially before and after handling your child or his/her food
  • Keep your child’s hands clean as well
  • Regularly sanitise your child’s bottles, dummies, teethers and toys (be sure to read the instructions on the labels)
  • Change your child’s nappy often and dispose of the nappies hygienically
  • Try to avoid exposing your child to other children who are sick
  • Always wash fresh fruit and vegetables before serving it to your child
  • Refrigerate food properly

Read more about UNICEF’s 7-point plan to reduce the number of diarrhoeal deaths across the globe.

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

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