Saving Lives by Treating Diarrhea with ORS and Zinc

Saving Lives by Treating Diarrhea with ORS and Zinc

Blog post updated Dec. 27, 2011.

Taj Bibi learns how to use zinc and oral rehydration salts to treat her child. Photo credit: BASICS/Afghanistan, MSH.

Taj Bibi sits nursing her 5-month-old baby in the kitchen of her home in the village of Sartal in Takhar province in Afghanistan’s north. The room is dark; the only natural light comes from the doorway to the dusty courtyard outside. The sound of her children playing echoes across the small family compound.

Bibi’s first two children died -- one of them from severe diarrhea -- because the family could not afford to take them to the doctor. “Now, if our children get diarrhea or any other illness, I take them to the community health worker,” she said.

Community health workers (CHWs) are the building blocks of the Afghan health system, bringing basic health services to villages across the country.

A community health worker gives Bibi’s children ORS (oral rehydration solution), zinc and advice on hand washing. “I followed her advice and completed the course of medication. It was very useful,” said Bibi. “Our community health worker can help us manage these sicknesses and give us the proper medicines.”

Gul Nisa, the community health worker for Sartal, explained: “By taking zinc with the ORS, it helps reduce the chances the child will develop diarrhea again soon.” ORS is widely considered to be the best method for combating dehydration caused by diarrhea. Consisting of a solution of sugar, potassium and sodium salts, ORS is used worldwide as an effective yet inexpensive way of reducing the millions of deaths caused by diarrhea each year in poor countries.

USAID’s BASICS (Basic Support for Institutionalizing Child Survival) project, led by MSH, works with the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) training community health workers to teach mothers the proper treatment for diarrhea and importance of beginning a course of ORS promptly after its onset. ORS packets are readily available throughout Afghanistan and can even be made using ingredients found in almost every household.

Diarrhea is the cause of one in every four deaths of children in Afghanistan. By having households and community health workers treat diarrhea with ORS and zinc, USAID is working with the MoPH to reduce the number of child deaths and build a healthier Afghanistan.

Bill Newbrander is principal technical director of technical quality and innovation at MSH.