Latent variable modeling to develop a robust proxy for sensitive behaviors: application to latrine use behavior and its association with sanitation access in a middle-income country


Globally, diarrhea is a leading cause of child morbidity and mortality. Although latrines are integral for reducing enteric pathogen transmission, several studies have shown no evidence that latrine ownership improved child health. There are a number of explanations for these results. One explanation is that latrine access does not equate to latrine use. Latrine use, however, is difficult to accurately ascertain, as defecation behavior is often stigmatized. To address this measurement issue, we measure latrine use as a latent variable, indicated by a suite of psychosocial variables.


We administered a survey of 16 defecation-related psychosocial questions to 251 individuals living in rural Ecuador. We applied latent class analysis (LCA) to these data to model the probability of latrine use as a latent variable. To account for uncertainty in predicted latent class membership, we used a pseudo-class approach to impute five different probabilities of latrine use for each respondent. Via regression modeling, we tested the association between household sanitation and each imputed latrine use variable.


The optimal model presented strong evidence of two latent classes (entropy = 0.86): consistent users (78%) and inconsistent users (22%), predicted by 5 of our 16 psychosocial variables. There was no evidence of an association between the probability of latrine use, predicted from the LCA, and household access to basic sanitation (OR = 1.1, 95% CI = 0.6-2.1). This suggests that home access to a sanitation facility may not ensure the use of the facility for every family member at all times.


Effective implementation and evaluation of sanitation programs requires accurate measurement of latrine use. Psychosocial variables, such as norms, perceptions, and attitudes may provide robust proxy-measures. Future longitudinal studies will help to strengthen the use of these surrogate measures, as many of these factors may be subject to secular trends. Additionally, subgroup analyses will elucidate how our proxy indicators of latrine defecation vary by individual-level characteristics.