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Children's health

Four things you didn't know about diarrhea

It may seem trivial, but as the cause of death for 760,000 children under the age of five annually, diarrhea is no joke. Here are some facts you may not have known about the disease:

Nearly every parent has woken up to a child crying because of a stomachache and diarrhea. For most of us, a doctor and a pharmacy are just a phone call away. But for many parents around the world, this is not the case.

Every year, 760,000 children under the age of five die from diarrhea—an illness that is simple to treat and prevent. Here are four things you may not know about one of the world’s deadliest diseases among young children:

Woman in Myanmar collects water from IRC tap

A woman collects water at an IRC-installed tap in rural Chin State, Myanmar.

Photo: Peter Biro/IRC

Clean water and proper hygiene are two of the easiest ways to prevent diarrhea.

In developing countries, simple solutions like drinking chlorinated water and washing hands thoroughly with soap help prevent the disease from spreading. Last year, the IRC provided clean water and sanitation services to 3.3 million people. We also educate communities on good health and personal hygiene practices. 

Breastfeeding can help reduce a child’s chance of getting diarrhea.

Many children suffer from diarrhea after drinking polluted water or eating contaminated food. Breastfeeding babies exclusively for the first six months of life can significantly reduce their risk of getting diarrhea.

Mother holds child in displacement camp while undergoing medical tests

A child in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp is screened for malnutrition.

Photo: Sven Torfinn/SV

Diarrhea is a leading cause of malnutrition in children under five years old.

When children suffer from malnourishment, they are more vulnerable to diarrhea. And because diarrhea causes children to lose fluids, it deprives them of the nutrients they need to survive and recover. A vicious cycle begins. Malnutrition is the underlying cause of 45 percent of all deaths of children under five.

It only costs 60 cents to treat diarrhea.

Children who die from diarrhea actually die from severe dehydration and fluid loss. Dehydration can be treated with a simple, low-cost solution of clean water, sugar and salt and with zinc tablets. If the solution were widely available, it would reduce deaths by 93 percent for children under five.

The International Rescue Committee helps ensure children living in crisis areas get the treatment they need to lead healthy lives. In the last six years, IRC-trained community health workers have provided more than 4 million treatments to sick children. In addition, community health volunteers have helped save countless lives by educating people about basic hygiene and providing them with clean water and adequate sanitation.