Before you read any further I would like you to try something, say the word “poo” aloud. It you’re alone you were probably ok with doing that, but now imagine you’re not only saying the word “poo” in front of other people but actually trying to discuss it actively with people, many of whom you probably do not know, because you are trying to improve public health by decreasing the practice of open defecation. It would probably make you and them a little uncomfortable, and that discomfort is known as the “poo taboo.”
Taboos in general are deeply rooted, often historically relevant, topics that people are uncomfortable talking about. The poo taboo is a particularly well-studied one because, as the book title goes, everybody poops; and despite the fact that the toilet and sewers were invented around 2800 BC there are still over 1 billion people that practice open defecation on a daily basis.
The people who are passionate about poop have taken up arms against the idea that poo is taboo. They have done a media dump of epic proportions on multiple continents in order to get people talking about poop. They have enlisted the help of celebrities like Matt Damon, had researchers give TEDx talks, and just generally made it easier for people the world over to say the word poo. The World Toilet Organization, headquartered in Singapore, have even gone as far as declaring November 19th World Toilet Day.
So you may ask yourself what this particular taboo has to do with you? Well, as someone interested in public health you have no doubt come across research and initiatives that would have incredible public health impacts but are shrouded in social taboos. Whether that topic was condom distribution, sex education for children, needle exchanges, or something as simple as poop doesn’t change that people do not want to talk about it. Our natural human inclination is to avoid talking about topics that make people uncomfortable, but in doing so we are doing a tremendous disservice to the global community. Only looking at the poo taboo it has been shown that not talking about the problem has significantly slowed the development of public health sanitation progress the world over. But the poo people have gone on fighting to put poo in everyone’s face, no matter how much they don’t want it there because when push comes to shove it matters. We can all learn from the poo people is that the solution to tackling a taboo health problem is to force discussion and education into the public sphere. The more people who are actively talking about a taboo the less uncomfortable it becomes for everyone involved and the greater progress can be made.