By Ibrahim Khalil and Puja Rao, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington
The problem: One-time illness or lifelong impairment?
When a child experiences a single episode of diarrhea, they typically feel uncomfortable for a short period of time, but with appropriate care, they recover and continue to live a life free from disability. But when access to safe water and sanitation is limited—and children are constantly exposed to an assortment of bacteria and viruses—what happens when a child experiences frequent bouts of diarrhea without proper remedy? To answer this question, we need to better understand the cyclical relationship of diarrheal diseases and enteric infections during the crucial period of early childhood development and related poor health outcomes that can result over a lifetime.
We know that repeated and persistent exposure to enteric infections like diarrhea may lead to intestinal inflammation and damage in the gut. Compromised gut health inhibits nutrient absorption in the body and can lead to malnutrition and eventually long-term health consequences, such as stunted physical growth, impaired cognitive development, and/or increased susceptibility to opportunistic infections, including pneumonia, the leading killer disease of children younger than five years. The more we understand about this vicious cycle, the better we are able to make meaningful policy decisions to break the cycle of poor health using primary and secondary prevention strategies.