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Water & Sanitation

World Toilet Day: an excuse to talk about poop (not that I need one…)

Len Matthews/ Flickr

When you work on the issue of diarrheal disease, you begin to notice how frequently conversations about your job take place over food. If you live in DC, it’s often during the weeknight networking frenzy known as happy hour. My go-to response, in case you’re wondering: “I work on advocacy to defeat diarrheal disease; say, how’s that appetizer?” 

My team may also be guilty of approaching unsuspecting passers-by on the street to ask if we could talk with them about diarrhea…

Diarrhea is not an easy sell. It’s gross, and no one wants to talk about it. But the unwritten social contract that dictates polite conversation comes at a high price; it results in a lack of awareness that costs lives. Diarrhea is the second leading killer disease of children under five years old, which means that in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, it’s far from an inconvenience; it’s a crisis.

At first it may seem surprising that something as simple as diarrhea kills thousands of children each day, but not really if you think about it. Just think of the last time you got sick with a diarrheal illness. Drains you, doesn’t it (pardon the pun)? This is even more so the case for children, whose fragile growing bodies can dehydrate to life-threatening stages within a matter of hours. 

We have made incredible progress. Global child mortality rates have fallen by nearly half since 1990, thanks in large part to simple prevention and treatment solutions.

But if there’s one thing I’d like everyone to know about diarrhea, it’s this: A child’s struggle with repeated bouts of diarrhea can have long-term consequences, like malnutrition and impaired physical and cognitive development. This is damage that cannot be undone later in life. 

This is heavy stuff, to be sure. But that doesn’t cancel the fact that people are squeamish about discussing it. This poses an interesting communications challenge (and if you’re anything like me, you actually get kind of excited about that).


We’ve found that embracing the inherent humor in poo disarms discomfort and makes room for meaningful engagement. Thank goodness for observances like World Toilet Day, which puts these issues in the spotlight in a silly but engaging way. It is poo-vocative (zing!) to think that the world reached the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for safe drinking water ahead of schedule, while the MDG for sanitation lagged woefully behind. Is it because water taps are sexier than toilets? Many believe so. Should sexiness be the standard by which we judge our development priorities? I hope not. 

DefeatDD has had a lot of fun over the years to raise awareness in creative ways, most recently with a caption contest for the global adventures of our Traveling Poo on a journey of self-discovery. Exploring and sharing our interactive map is a great way to commemorate World Toilet Day, because there are still not enough people who know what’s at stake. And if we can’t talk about diarrhea, and solutions like sanitation, we can’t defeat it.  

And if saving kids’ lives wasn’t enough motivation, let’s you and I chat over happy hour about the unique perks of DefeatDD advocacy, like toilet-themed gifts from friends and colleagues, guiltless uses of the word “shit” in front of your mom (“I’m serious, Mom, Shit Flow Diagram is a technical term!”) and daily discoveries of new poo-related puns. If you’re not ready for a discussion over appetizers yet, then join the #DefeatDD conversation on Twitter.

This article was written by Hope Randall, Digital Communications Officer for PATH’s Defeat Diarrheal Disease (DefeatDD) Initiative.