Government of Canada

Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada

Diarrhea Can be Fatal

UNICEF reports that approximately 1.3 million children under the age of five die from diarrhea every year. Pneumonia and diarrhea are jointly responsible for 40 percent of deaths among children under the age of five.

Undernutrition is an underlying factor in one third of preventable child deaths and plays a significant role in the diarrhea episodes resulting in death. In children with persistent or chronic diarrhea, undernutrition and weakened immune systems threaten their long-term physical and cognitive development.

Diarrhea is usually a symptom of bacterial, viral, or parasitic infection that results from eating contaminated food and drinking polluted water or from person-to-person contact. It is more prevalent in the developing world because of the lack of safe drinking water and basic sanitation facilities, poor hygiene practices, higher prevalence of malnutrition, and overall lower health status.

Did you know?

More than 2.5 billion people are without sustainable access to basic sanitation.

Some 1.1 billion people excrete in open places, an important factor in the transmission of diarrheal diseases.

About 884 million people still rely on drinking water sources considered unsafe.

Prevention and treatment

To treat diarrhea, UNICEF and WHO, in their joint report entitled Diarrhoea: Why children are still dying and what can be done (PDF, 68 pages, 5.5 MB), recommend oral rehydration salts and zinc. This regimen works to improve immune response in zinc deficient children, particularly for subsequent episodes of diarrhea. The treatment costs approximately C$1 per dose and can save the life of a child. Yet, the majority of children living in vulnerable conditions in developing countries still do not have access to this important intervention. That is why Canada is working with key partners to ensure treatment is scaled up in the countries with the greatest need.

While treatment of diarrhea is critical, there is growing focus on preventative measures, including:

  • Breastfeeding and Vitamin-A supplementation
  • Rotavirus and measles vaccination
  • Hand washing with soap
  • Improved drinking water supply
  • Basic sanitation

Canada is working to prevent child deaths

Canada supports many international development activities that aim to prevent and treat diarrhea and decrease child mortality:

  • The Catalytic Initiative to Save a Million Lives is an international Canadian-led partnership supported through the Integrated Health Systems Strengthening Project implemented by UNICEF in Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger and Tanzania. From 2007 to November 2012, through the Calalytic Initiative,
    • More than 53,000 front-line health workers were trained to deliver services to women and children
    • More than 1 million treatments were provided to children under the age of five who suffer from diarrhea
    • More than 35 million sachets of oral rehydration salts and more than 25 million zinc tablets were procured to treat children under the age of five for diarrhea
  • The Zinc Alliance for Child Health (ZACH) is a Canadian public-private-civil society partnership between DFATD, the Micronutrient Initiative, and Teck Resources. The alliance focuses on scaling up life-saving treatment of diarrhea using a combination of zinc supplements and oral rehydration salts. The Senegal ZACH project, led by the Senegal Ministry of Health, aims to treat more than 2 million cases of diarrhea at 4,000 service delivery points.
  • The Micronutrient Initiative (MI) is a global leading organization working exclusively to eliminate vitamin and mineral deficiencies in the most vulnerable populations. In 2011, MI distributed 8 million zinc supplements to children around the world and, since 1997, has provided more than 5 billion capsules and oral doses of vitamin A in developing countries. In 2011 alone, MI's programming ensured that more than 200 million children under the age of five received twice-yearly vitamin-A supplementation.
  • GAVI Alliance aims to prevent diarrhea by increasing access to rotavirus vaccines, which, with institutional support, it plans to introduce in at least 40 countries by 2015.
  • World Vision Canada is a partner of Canada with many health-service initiatives in a number of developing countries. The aim of a current World Vision Canada project is to support systems to achieve improved nutrition and maternal, newborn and child health in Tanzania. The project includes promoting improved prevention and treatment measures of diarrhoea and other diseases through specific activities, such as training health workers in implementing community education programs on nutrition, child feeding, and disease prevention.
  • The Northern Region Small Towns (NORST) project aims to provide 125,000 people living in small towns in Northern Ghana with access to safe drinking water, as only 14 percent of the population currently has access to enhanced sanitation services. The project, which is being carried out in conjunction with the Canadian non-governmental organization Right to Play, also aims to teach children and young people safety and health practices.
  • UNICEF, as part of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) project, aims to enhance sanitation services in schools and communities in the five most deprived regions of Ghana.
  • HOPE International Development Agency is a non-profit organization that has worked with the former Canadian International Development Agency (now DFATD) for more than 10 years to reduce the frequency of water-borne diseases in Ethiopia, protecting natural water sources, installing safe drinking water systems, and contributing to improved sanitation services and health and safety practices.

These initiatives are central to addressing one of Canada's priority themes for interantional development: Securing the future of children and youth. They are also central to Canada's efforts to improve maternal, newborn and child health.

Progress on preventing and treating diarrhea is key to reducing the under-five mortality rate. Efforts to reduce the proportion of the population that does not have sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation also contribute to ensuring environmental sustainability.

Consult the International Development Project Browser to find out more about these initiatives and other projects for the prevention of infectious diseases.