Bats in My Latrine

My mother recalls that after I returned from the Peace Corps, I would talk about anything at any time, even if it wasn’t proper “dinner table” talk. What she was mostly referring to were stories I told about latrines and diarrhea. Here in the U.S., we have no problem telling others we have a headache. Similarly, people in many places I’ve lived would just as comfortably talk about their intestinal problems and how often they make trips to the toilet.

Because many developing countries suffered from inadequate sanitation, diarrhea is a huge problem. The most common toilets in poor communities are pit latrines. Properly installed and maintained they can function as a safe and effective sanitation system for a family. Poorly done, they can help spread disease (tainting nearby water supplies) and sometimes be downright scary – and even dangerous. I speak from experience. In the mud house I rented (yes, you can rent a mud house) as a Peace Corps volunteer, the pit latrine was in the back yard, a considerable distance from my back door. The outhouse had the prerequisite opening in the cement floor, with the waste pit below. But it lacked something important – a covering for the opening. One night, I learned the hard way that bats liked to spend time down in that pit. Suffice to say that when their exit was partially blocked, they wasted no time in flying out, much to my surprise.

Next week, we will be celebrating World Toilet Day. Yes, it does sound like an unusual thing to celebrate. But ChildFund is well aware that diarrhea is not a humorous story; globally, this disease is the second leading killer of children under 5 years old, claiming the lives of 1.5 million children every year, according to the World Health Organization.

Many of ChildFund’s programs around the world include a sanitation component, an important part of our fight to reduce the death rates of children under 5 and to ensure that children stay healthy. With World Toilet Day still a week off, I might share another story or two that my mother wouldn’t approve. Stay tuned.

Babies in Bangladesh

When I lived in Bangladesh a few years back, I don’t recall ever having met a mother in the village who had not lost at least one child. When I would ask how their child had died, the mothers would usually reply: vomiting and diarrhea. They would describe how the child had been sick for less than a week and then passed away.

Although we were living in what was then commonly known the “Diarrhea Capital of the World” (I’m not sure which country has that wonderfully coveted title these days), these stories always stopped me cold. How could a child die so quickly?

Then it happened to my own 2-year old son. Overnight he became violently ill with terrible vomiting and diarrhea. I had access to the doctor at the American Embassy who immediately put him on antibiotics but things didn’t improve. For a big boy who was always on the go, he suddenly became too weak to even walk or eat. Frantic at his severe dehydration, I started using a dropper to put rehydration solution down his thoat. After about two weeks, the doctor started discussing evacuating him to Thailand for further treatment.

Then it happened, the third antibiotic did the trick - the right treatment for his type of dysentery. I understood then how all those mothers lost their infants and young children. This is one of the reasons I am very pleased that ChildFund has a new emphasis on the health and development of children under 5. We will be deepening and expanding our programs for this very vulnerable age group. 

A mother never really gets over losing a child.