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Contacts: Paul Quirk for PATH, 202.572.2879, 202.549.5394 (cell), Paul.Quirk@gmmb.com; Jonathan Rich for WaterAid America, 347.262.9115 (cell), jonathan@jcrcommunications.com.

Nearly 1.6 million children die each year from these preventable and treatable diseases

Washington, DC, May 12, 2009—PATH and WaterAid America released two new reports today that show that the international aid community and developing-country governments are not responding to clear evidence on child mortality by targeting resources where the disease burden is greatest. Diarrheal disease, a leading killer of children under age five worldwide, is responsible for the deaths of nearly 1.6 million children annually, yet it receives very little attention from both policymakers and the public. During the 1980s and 1990s, diarrheal disease mortality rates were cut by nearly 50 percent, made possible by wide availability and implementation of lifesaving prevention and treatment interventions.

Today, diarrheal disease receives significantly less funding than other diseases, despite accounting for 17 percent of deaths of children under five. And in some parts of the world, the severity of the disease is increasing. Diarrheal Disease: Solutions to Defeat a Global Killer from PATH and Fatal Neglect: How Health Systems are Failing to Comprehensively Address Child Mortality from WaterAid America highlight the urgent need to refocus attention on diarrheal disease, a prolific global killer. At the same time, a broad and diverse group of more than 75 organizations from many sectors have signed a call to action, demonstrating a unified show of support for aggressively meeting the challenge diarrheal disease presents today.

“The global health community knows what is necessary to save the lives of children suffering from diarrheal disease,” said Dr. John Wecker, director of the Immunization Solutions and Rotavirus Vaccine Program at PATH. “And now is the time to educate policymakers, donors, and international and national leaders about the need to implement the solutions to prevent and treat the most severe causes.”

Key findings in the reports indicate:

  • The international aid system and developing-country governments must respond to evidence on child mortality—of which diarrheal disease is a leading cause—and better target resources where the disease burden is the greatest.
  • Comprehensive health systems strengthening that addresses environmental factors such as sanitation and water are critical to improving overall health and reducing diarrheal disease deaths. The Millennium Development Goal on child survival (MDG 4) will remain beyond our reach until diarrheal disease and the poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water that can lead to it are addressed.
  • There are more lifesaving prevention and treatment solutions for diarrheal disease than any other major childhood killer. These interventions include safe water, improved sanitation and hygiene, breastfeeding and optimal complementary feeding, rotavirus vaccines, zinc treatment, and oral rehydration therapy (ORT)/oral rehydration solution (ORS).
  • Millions of children’s lives could be saved by addressing diarrheal disease with a coordinated approach among health care providers, policymakers, and the international aid community focusing on both prevention and treatment interventions.

The report releases come at a critical time when the World Health Organization (WHO) is reviewing data from studies of vaccines to prevent rotavirus—the most common and lethal diarrheal disease—from clinical trials in Africa and Asia. The WHO will consider a global recommendation that every country introduce rotavirus vaccines into its routine immunization schedule based on this data.

“While diarrheal disease is a global killer, today the burden is greatest in developing nations in Africa and Asia where access to clean water, sanitation, and urgent medical care may be limited,” said Nancy C. Bwalya-Mukumbuta, program manager at WaterAid in Zambia. “The international aid system and developing-country governments need to come together with a strong voice and respond to diarrheal disease, one of the leading causes of child mortality, in a targeted manner.”

The Call to Action urges advocates, including organizations from the health, development, environmental, water/sanitation, and research communities, to push for adequate funding of both prevention and treatment interventions for diarrheal disease. These organizations, such as the UN Foundation, Save the Children, WaterAid America, and Earth Day Network, are also joining together to reaffirm their commitment to the MDGs. World leaders have committed to child survival and improving conditions for future generations around the world by 2015 through the MDGs. But, today, progress toward these goals is seriously off track. If diarrheal disease and the poor sanitation and unsafe water that can lead to it continue to be ignored, the child survival MDG will be unobtainable.

“The persisting high mortality rate from diarrheal disease in the presence of existing, cost-effective interventions and available resources to implement them represents a continuing scandal,” said Olivier Fontaine, Medical Officer, Department of Child and Adolescent Health and Development at the WHO.

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