How does diarrhea become deadly?

Oct 05, 2016


Hope Randall
Communications Officer, DefeatDD

Do you remember that episode of the Magic School Bus where the class shrinks into a bite-sized morsel to take a journey through the digestive system? It’s one of my favorites! Since a shrink ray is out of scope for our budget (maybe next year), DefeatDD will instead provide you with this illuminating and informative visual journey of a pathogen’s pathway through the digestive system. This infographic walks you through the biology behind a key question: Why is diarrhea so dangerous, anyway?


It’s not immediately obvious, is it? We’ve all had to deal with diarrhea at one point or another, and for many of us it’s annoying, but certainly not life-threatening. How could it be? It might be easier for us to understand why an illness like HIV/AIDS or malaria can fatal… but diarrhea?


The danger is in the dehydration caused by a diarrhea pathogen (in our example, ETEC), but if you want more details, our infographic gets nerdy with enterotoxins:

Children are especially vulnerable to dehydration because their organs aren’t fully developed, and their tolerance threshold to the loss of fluid is much lower than an adult’s. Dehydration can become fatal within a matter of hours.


This paints a sobering picture, but the wonderful news is that kids can heal from diarrhea just as quickly as they can get sick. Alfred Ochola, our program implementer in Kenya, has seen this miracle multiple times in oral rehydration therapy corners: “They can be so sick, I can tell you,” he explains fervently, “and in just a few hours, they can change and they can be playing. It gives you a lot of human satisfaction.”


Beyond the “why” behind deadly diarrhea, we also share the “how” of prevention and treatment. Check out the full infographic.


The World Health Organization recommends oral rehydration solution and zinc as the cornerstone treatment of diarrheal disease. Learn about a new effort to increase access to both tools


Diarrhea isn't just dangerous because it can kill; our infographic on malnutrition and diarrhea delves into the long-term consequences.