Diarrhea is the second leading killer of children worldwide, responsible for nearly 600,000 deaths each year. Children with diarrhea can become fatally dehydrated and at risk for worsened malnutrition and weakened immune systems, which, in turn, increases the chance of death from other diseases.
However, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a combination of oral rehydration salts (or “ORS,” a formula that replaces fluids and essential salts lost to dehydration) and zinc (a micronutrient that reduces the duration and severity of diarrhea, and protects the child from future episodes of diarrhea) for the treatment of child diarrhea. Together, ORS and zinc can prevent over 90 percent of diarrhea-related deaths and cost less than US$0.50 per child, yet few children in need are receiving it. Globally, an estimated 32 percent of children with diarrhea receive ORS, but less than one percent receives the full recommended combined treatment of ORS and zinc. Instead, the vast majority of children continue to use suboptimal products like antibiotics and antidiarrheals, or receive nothing at all.
The root cause of this issue is clear: health providers and consumers are often unaware that the combination of ORS and zinc is the recommended treatment for child diarrhea, resulting in low demand. Suppliers have limited incentive to invest in distribution and promotion of these products. There is also often limited attention and funding for ORS and zinc uptake, and in some cases, unfavorable policies or regulatory conditions where zinc is still a prescription-only product.