Interventions to improve disposal of human excreta for preventing diarrhoea

Diarrhoea is a major cause of death and disease, especially among young children in low-income countries. Many of the microbial agents associated with diarrhoea are transmitted via the faecal-oral route and are associated with exposure to human faeces. This review examined trials of interventions to improve the safe disposal of human faeces to prevent diarrhoea. In low-income settings, among the estimated 2.6 billion people who lack basic sanitation, this mainly consists of introducing or expanding the number and use of latrines and other facilities to contain or dispose of faeces. We identified 13 studies of such interventions involving more than 33,400 people in six countries. These trials provide some evidence that excreta disposal interventions are effective in preventing diarrhoeal diseases. However, major differences among the studies, including the conditions in which they were conducted and the types of interventions deployed, as well as methodological deficiencies in the studies themselves, makes it impossible to estimate with precision the protective effective of sanitation against diarrhoea. Further research, including randomized controlled trials, is necessary to understand the full impact of these interventions.

Authors' conclusions: 

This review provides some evidence that interventions to improve excreta disposal are effective in preventing diarrhoeal disease. However, this conclusion is based primarily on the consistency of the evidence of beneficial effects. The quality of the evidence is generally poor and does not allow for quantification of any such effect. The wide range of estimates of the effects of the intervention may be due to clinical and methodological heterogeneity among the studies, as well as to other important differences, including exposure levels, types of interventions, and different degrees of observer and respondent bias. Rigorous studies in multiple settings are needed to clarify the potential effectiveness of excreta disposal on diarrhoea.

Read the full abstract...

Diarrhoeal diseases are a leading cause of mortality and morbidity, especially among young children in low-income countries, and are associated with exposure to human excreta.


To assess the effectiveness of interventions to improve the disposal of human excreta for preventing diarrhoeal diseases.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Infectious Disease Group Specialized Register; the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), published in The Cochrane Library; MEDLINE; EMBASE; LILACS; the metaRegister of Controlled Trials (mRCT); and Chinese-language databases available under the Wan Fang portal, and the China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI-CAJ). We also handsearched relevant conference proceedings, and contacted researchers and organizations working in the field, as well as checking references from identified studies.

Selection criteria: 

Randomized, quasi-randomized, and non-randomized controlled trials (RCTs) were selected, comparing interventions aimed at improving the disposal of human excreta to reduce direct or indirect human contact with no such intervention. Cluster (eg at the level of household or community) controlled trials were included.

Data collection and analysis: 

We determined study eligibility, extracted data, and assessed methodological quality in accordance with the methods prescribed by the protocol. We described the results and summarized the information in tables. Due to substantial heterogeneity among the studies in terms of study design and type of intervention, no pooled effects were calculated.

Main results: 

Thirteen studies from six countries covering over 33,400 children and adults in rural, urban, and school settings met the review's inclusion criteria. In all studies the intervention was allocated at the community level. While the studies reported a wide range of effects, 11 of the 13 studies found the intervention was protective against diarrhoea. Differences in study populations and settings, in baseline sanitation levels, water, and hygiene practices, in types of interventions, study methodologies, compliance and coverage levels, and in case definitions and outcome surveillance limit the comparability of results of the studies included in this review. The validity of most individual study results are further compromised by the non-random allocation of the intervention among study clusters, an insufficient number of clusters, the lack of adjustment for clustering, unclear loss to follow-up, potential for reporting bias and other methodological shortcomings.