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How a Spoonful of Sugar Can Help Diarrheal Disease

diarrheal diseaseFollowing the increased efforts made to improve global health in the past 25 years, there have been incredible advances in the reduction of preventable deaths including diarrheal disease.

Nevertheless, children remain the most vulnerable demographic when it comes to being affected by preventable diseases. Notably, one in five children will die of avoidable causes before the age of 5.

The majority of these deaths are made up of children living in poor countries, and one of the leading causes is diarrheal disease. Nearly 90 percent of deaths caused by diarrheal disease occur in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Severe diarrhea leads to life-threatening dehydration, so even if the child survives the illness, subsequent issues such as infection, stunted growth, cognitive impairment and poor immune response to vaccines can lead to a lifetime of compromised health.

While improved sanitation and access to clean water may reduce cases of diarrheal disease, treatments are also necessary in cases where those tactics are not enough.

For example, oral rehydration solutions (ORS) (mixtures of salt, glucose, sucrose, citrates or molasses) work quickly and effectively to revive someone who is experiencing the negative symptoms of dehydration and the accompanying health complications.

The solutions have been widely used in response to cholera outbreaks as a low-cost way to handle dehydration and save lives. The medicine is inexpensive — packets of ORS run for about 10 cents a piece. Although they must be mixed with clean water, the benefits of ORS treatments significantly outweigh the risks.

Oral rehydration solutions have proven to be an effective remedy for dehydration caused by diarrheal disease, and implementing them could dramatically improve the life expectancy of children living in poverty.

Furthermore, the simple administration of the medication does not require a doctor, and families could relieve a child showing symptoms without a trip to the hospital. Not only is this convenient, but the measure could prevent the symptoms from becoming life-threatening.

Despite the solutions being cost-effective for the medical conditions found frequently in poor countries, they are not yet easy to obtain. Recent measures have been taken by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to expand the availability of ORS in countries that would benefit from these treatments.

There is hope that through child health policy changes and increased funding, oral rehydration solutions will help significantly reduce childhood deaths from diarrheal disease and other preventable illnesses.

Brittney Dimond

Sources: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rehydration Project
Photo: Flickr