The summer brings a lot of joy and laughter, however, with it also comes many ailments. One of the diseases that can impact the whole family, especially vulnerable children, is diarrhoea.
As the paediatric surge season (PSS) gets underway, the Western Cape department of health and wellness has urged parents and caregivers to take the necessary precautions to protect all children against preventable and treatable diarrhoeal disease over the next few months.
Paediatric surge season starts in November and May every year, causing healthcare facilities to see an increase in diarrhoea and pneumonia cases among children, particularly children under the age of five, during this time.
Diarrhoea can lead to dehydration, and this can cause serious health problems. However, if a child with diarrhoea is given the proper care and treatment, he or she can recover completely in a few days.
Dangers of diarrhoea
According to the World Health Organisation, diarrhoeal disease is the second leading cause of death in children under five years old and was responsible for the deaths of 370 000 children in 2019.
In the northern and Tygerberg substructure, between November 2022 and May 2023, a total of 1 837 children were treated for diarrhoea in the northern health sub-district. Of these 1 837 cases of children presenting with diarrhoea, at least 113 children also had dehydration, with 21 children being severely dehydrated.
Additionally, in the Tygerberg health sub-district, a total of 4 085 children were treated for diarrhoea. Of these 4 085 cases of children, 647 also had dehydration, and 32 children were severely dehydrated.
Delray Fourie, deputy director for Comprehensive Health Services in the northern and Tygerberg substructures, encourages parents to be aware of the risks and to take precautions to protect their children during the paediatric surge season.
“Our healthcare staff are trained and equipped to support you and your children, and we have free oral rehydration solutions (ORS) available at our clinics. Various awareness campaigns take place throughout the year to educate parents and caregivers about the risks and treatment options, as well as preventative measures parents can take,” she says.
Furthermore, she advises that there are steps we can take to protect children, such as regular handwashing, where possible.
She gives the following advice:
- Due to warmer weather, food can easily spoil. This can also lead to diarrhoea and, later, dehydration. We must try to keep our hands, food, cooking utensils, and toilets clean.
- Dustbins must be closed, animal faeces collected and thrown away, and food scrapings, used nappies, and sanitary towels put into a plastic bag, knotted securely, and thrown into a dustbin. Remember to wash your hands after completing these tasks.
- The World Health Organisation also recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, as advantages include a lower risk of gastrointestinal infection for the baby and helping to build the immunity of the child.
- You should also ensure that your child gets the rotavirus vaccination, which is considered effective in preventing severe diarrhoea.
Check these signs
If your child gets diarrhoea, Fourie advises to check them for these signs of dehydration:
- Dry or sticky mouth;
- Does not want to accept milk feeds (breastmilk or infant formula) or eat;
- Few or no tears when crying;
- Lack of urine, or only a very small amount of dark yellow urine;
- Dry, cool skin;
- Tiredness and irritability
- Headache and stomach ache; and
“If your child shows any symptoms of dehydration or you are not sure, seek help at your nearest clinic or hospital (if after hours). Do not wait in line; go directly to the healthcare worker or reception desk and let them know your child has diarrhoea and possible dehydration,” she emphasises.
To replace the lost bodily fluids, Fourie recommends preparing an oral rehydration solution by following these steps: Using a clean 1-litre bottle Mix 1 litre of boiled and cooled water with ½ teaspoon of salt and 8 teaspoons of sugar. Mix well. Take the solution with you should you need to take your child to the clinic so that your child does not dehydrate on the way. Offer the child sips between and after every loose stool. Do not stop offering food or milk feeds.
When it becomes an emergency
She adds that it is also important to recognise the signs that your child requires immediate medical care. These signs include
- Rapid breathing. It is a symptom of pneumonia and diarrhoea;
- Chest retraction;
- If your child does not drink and/or vomits everything up;
- If your child has convulsions;
- Your child is weak and just stares into nothingness;
- There is blood in the stool; and
- Your child is very sleepy or does not want to wake up.
If your child displays these warning signs, Fourie stresses the need to seek help urgently. “Visit your nearest healthcare facility or call an ambulance on 10177 immediately.”
Get the Health For Mzansi newsletter: Your bi-weekly dose of kasi health, wellness and self-care inspiration.