LONDON Human defecation remains a taboo subject, despite the fact that 2.5 billion people lack toilets, causing a global health crisis that kills more than a million children each year.
The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) hopes a new exhibition opening on Thursday will make sanitation easier to discuss. The show is part of its efforts to help fight diseases causing diarrhea, which kill more children than malaria, HIV/AIDS and measles combined.
"People don't talk about poo enough, and if we don't talk about poo, how are we going to solve the problem of diarrheal diseases?" asked Val Curtis, director of the LSHTM's Hygiene Centre.
"We want to make shit sexy - make talking about shit possible," Curtis told AlertNet, a humanitarian news service run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that proper handwashing with soap could prevent 600,000 deaths a year from diseases like diarrhea and respiratory infections.
"You've got to know your enemy and look your enemy in the face. Some people say it's not acceptable for academics to go around talking about shit, but it's not acceptable for 600,000 children to be dying unnecessarily because we don't talk about shit," she said.
The month-long exhibition, which includes a selection of toilet designs, scientific tools for the study of faeces and a small golden poo sculpture seated on a red cushion, is timed to coincide with Global Handwashing Day on October 15 and World Toilet Day on November 19. The school expects at least 4,000 people to see the show.
The poo sculpture is the model for The Golden Poo Award 2012 - the Oscar of the sanitation sector, organized by PooP Creative Ltd and the London Short Film Festival.
A film titled "Men, Loos and Number Twos" won the "Number One Award", and another short film, "Pushing4Change", won the "Number Two Award". They are being used in awareness-raising campaigns.
"The Golden Poo awards were based around the idea that we wanted to be a little bit shocking and get people thinking about this issue, but do it in an amusing way," Curtis said. "We gave awards to heroes of sanitation and also to films about poo."
As well as promoting the LSHTM's wider efforts to improve hygiene, the exhibition features the composting "Tiger Worm Toilet", which has a filter layer of worms that digest solid waste, helping break it down and allowing easy odor-free disposal.
The toilet doesn't use very much water - around two liters per flush - so it places less demand on natural water sources and power than conventional septic tank or sewage systems.
The LSHTM, a university specializing in public health and tropical medicine, is also researching the human waste found in pit latrines in Africa and Vietnam to help find new ways to dispose of it. It is also looking at human behavior to figure out the best way of getting people to increase handwashing.
"If you ask people if they wash their hands with soap, about 90 percent say they do, but actually if you go and measure it - as we have in 20 countries - the average rate of handwashing with soap after going to the toilet is about 17 percent," Curtis said.
The school has its roots in the Ross Institute and Hospital for Tropical Diseases, which was founded in London's Putney Heath area in 1926.
It was named after British doctor Ronald Ross who won a Nobel Prize for his discovery that the female Anopheles mosquito transmits malaria between human beings.
The school is now in London's Bloomsbury district, renowned for its literary heritage.
(AlertNet is a humanitarian news website run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation)
(Writing by Julie Mollins, editing by Paul Casciato)