Diarrheal Disease: Key Facts

Jan 01, 2013

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Diarrheal Disease: Key Facts


These key facts provide a quick overview of the burden of diarrheal disease, the solutions to address it, and the value of an integrated approach. Share this page with friends and colleagues to introduce them to the issue.

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  • Diarrhea takes the lives of more than 1,500 children each day and 600,000 every year. It is among the leading killers of children under age 5, along with pneumonia and pre-term birth complications.1
  • Diarrheal disease is a global killer. Its burden is greatest in the developing countries of Asia and Africa where access to clean water, sanitation, and urgent medical care may be limited. 

Rotavirus is the most common and deadly form of severe diarrhea.

  • While nearly every child can contract rotavirus, most rotavirus deaths happen in poor countries where treatment for severe disease is often out of reach.
  • Rotavirus-related diarrheal disease accounts for one-third of diarrhea deaths among children under 5 every year and for the hospitalization of millions more around the world.2
  • More than 95 percent of rotavirus deaths occur in developing countries in Africa and Asia.2
  • Data from studies in low-resource countries demonstrate the efficacy and impact of vaccination in significantly reducing severe rotavirus infections among children worldwide.3
  • These data informed a World Health Organization recommendation that all countries include rotavirus vaccines in their national immunization programs. The GAVI Alliance has committed to support rotavirus vaccine introduction in developing countries worldwide.
  • Rotavirus vaccines have been introduced in many countries and are having a powerful impact on children’s health—slashing hospitalizations due to rotavirus, while also reducing hospitalizations for diarrhea of any cause.
  • Rotavirus is less prevalent among unvaccinated children, as well, suggesting herd immunity as an indirect result of rotavirus vaccine introduction.4


Nearly nine out of ten child deaths due to diarrhea could be prevented with solutions available today.

  • Contaminated hands are a common way to spread illnesses – including pneumonia and diarrhea, which are the leading killers of children worldwide. About 2 million children worldwide lose their lives to these preventable illnesses each year.5
  • Handwashing with soap is a low-cost and highly effective way to protect children from the most common causes of child death – pneumonia and diarrheal disease.
  • Poor hygiene, lack of access to sanitation and unsafe drinking water together are responsible for 88 percent of diarrheal disease infections.6
  • If all communities practiced universal handwashing, diarrhea risk would drop by nearly half.7
  • When implemented correctly, sanitation can reduce diarrheal disease by 36 percent.8
  • Since the 1970s, ORS has saved an estimated 50 million lives.9
  • Zinc is a critical new intervention for treating diarrhea. A course of zinc treatment can reduce the duration and severity of diarrheal episodes and may also prevent future episodes for up to three months.10



1 UNICEF. Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed. 2013 Progress Report. New York: UNICEF; 2013.
2 Tate JE, Burton AH, Boschi-Pinto C, Steele AD, Duque J, Parashar UD. 2008 Estimate of Worldwide Rotavirus-Associated Mortality in Children Younger than 5 Years Before the Introduction of Universal Rotavirus Vaccination Programmes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases. 2011. (E-pub).
3 Nelson A, Glass R. Rotavirus: realising the potential of a promising vaccine. Lancet. 2010; 376(9741):568-570.
4 Patel MM, Parashar US, eds. Real World Impact of Rotavirus Vaccination. Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal. 2011; 30(1).
5 UNICEF. Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed. New York: UNICEF; 2012.
6 Black RE, Morris S, Bryce J. Where and Why are 10 Million Children Dying Every Year? Lancet. 2003; 361(9376):2226-2234.
7 Greenland K, Cairncross S, Curtis V. What can hand hygiene do for the world? 2012. London, UK: Environmental Health Group, Department of Disease Control, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
8 Jamison DT, et al, eds. Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries (Second Edition). London: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; 2008.
9 Fontaine O, Garner P, Bhan MK. Oral rehydration therapy: the simple solution for saving lives. BMJ. 2007;334:s14.
10 Zinc Investigators' Collaborative Group. Therapeutic effects of oral zinc in acute and persistent diarrhea in children in developing countries: pooled analysis of randomized controlled trials.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2000;72(6):1516-22.