Droughts raise diarrhoea risk in children: Yale study

Exposure to six-month-long mild or severe drought is associated with an increased diarrhoea risk of 5 or 8 per cent respectively

By Susan Chacko
Published: Friday 08 July 2022

Researchers from Yale University in the United States have found a direct correlation between extended bouts of drought and higher rates of diarrhoea. This is concerning as the incidences of drought are expected to increase in a warming world.

They found that exposure to six-month-long mild or severe drought was associated with an increased diarrhoea risk of 5 or 8 per cent respectively.


The association was more pronounced among children living in a household that needed more time to collect water or had no access to water; soap; detergent for hand washing. The researchers suggested that the risk could be minimised through improved water, sanitation and hygiene practices.

The researchers conducted 141 surveys across 51 low- and middle-income countries. Among these, 102 surveys were done in sub-Saharan Africa (34 countries), 24 were in south and southeast Asia (nine countries) and 15 in Latin America and the Caribbean (eight countries).

Some 21 of the surveys were conducted from 1990-1999, 51 were conducted from 2000-2009 and 69 were carried out from 2010-2019, respectively. A total of 1,379,566 children under age five were surveyed.

The overall incidence among children under five was 14.4 per cent and was highest among children aged 6-23 months.

Niger had the highest incidence (36.4 per cent) in the most recent survey (2010-2019) among all 51 countries. It was followed by Bolivia (25.1 per cent), Liberia (23.8 per cent), Central African Republic (22.7 per cent), Burundi (21.4 per cent), Malawi (20.7 per cent) and Haiti (20.2 per cent).

The study was the first of its kind to use a new measure of drought that takes both water supply and demand into account.

Kai Chen, assistant professor, department of epidemiology (environmental health), Yale School of Public Health and one of the authors of the study, said:

You cannot fully eliminate drought’s impact on diarrhoea risk, especially under a climate that will have more drought in the future. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Diarrhoea was responsible for an estimated 533,768 deaths among children younger than five years globally in 2017, according to the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2017 (GBD 2017). That is a rate of 78·4 deaths per 100,000 children.

Diarrhoea mortality per 100,000 globally decreased by 69·6 per cent between 1990 and 2017 and the main factor for the largest declines in the diarrhoea mortality rate was a reduction in exposure to unsafe sanitation (13·3% decrease), the GBD 2017 found.

The Yale study was titled Associations between long-term drought and diarrhea among children under five in low- and middle-income countries. It was published June 30, 2022, in the journal Nature Communications.

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