February 5, 2014 |

Myth: diarrhea is rarely fatal

Diarrhea is gross. But is it a major global health issue?
Woman cradles her baby while holding a red cup to its lips.
A mother in Malawi gives her baby oral rehydration solution to treat dehydration caused by diarrhea. Photo: PATH/Amy Gottlieb.

This week we’re debunking six myths that impede progress in global health. Today we’re taking on:

Diarrhea is no more serious than the common cold.

Mythbuster: Dr. Alfred Ochola, technical advisor for child survival and development for PATH’s Kenya Program.

As a doctor and as a father, I am saddened by this myth because it costs many innocent children their lives. Even though diarrhea is a leading killer of children here in Kenya, mothers believe that it is “just diarrhea”—that it is not a serious problem. In fact, it is because of this myth that parents often bring their children to the hospital with complications like dehydration only after it is too late.

The reason diarrhea is a killer of children less than five years old is because dehydration is dangerously rapid in young children—often developing within just a few hours. And to make it worse, mothers believe other dangerous myths, for example, that one should withhold fluids from a child with diarrhea. Nothing could be worse!

See how oral rehydration therapy corners are saving children’s lives in Kenya.

No myth: preventable and treatable

The good news is that diarrhea is preventable and treatable. Throughout rural Kenya, my colleagues and I have set up 365 oral rehydration therapy corners in clinics, where children receive a simple mixture of sugar, water, and salt called oral rehydration solution that quickly treats dehydration, along with zinc tablets. It is amazing to see their eyes become bright and cheerful after just a few hours, especially after their situations were so dire.

The hours children spend in oral rehydration therapy corners also provide an opportunity to teach mothers about the importance of breastfeeding, hygiene, and other ways to prevent dangerous diarrhea from recurring. We also use radio programs and community health workers as opportunities to share these important health messages with the community.

Political will is important to continue the fight, and I am thrilled that the Government of Kenya adopted a national policy for diarrheal disease prevention and treatment. We have the solutions. What we need is improved access and greater awareness to fight dangerous myths and practices. All children get diarrhea, but I hope for a day where no child will die from it.

More information

Posted in: ,