Diseases arising from diarrhea are very common among young children and are a leading child killer in developing countries. About 1.2 million children die from dehydration due to diarrhoeal diseases every year, 80% of them in the first two years of life. Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT), a simple, cost-effective treatment given at home using either packet of Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS) or a simple home solution of sugar, salt and water can prevent about 90% of child deaths from diarrhoeal dehydration. UNICEF and its partners have helped ensure that nearly 80 percent of children in more than 45 countries suffering from diarrhea are treated with ORT.
The crucial breakthrough has been the discovery of Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT) and its vital importance arises from the fact that it can stop dehydration, caused by the draining of the child's body as a result of diarrhoeal infection. ORT helps save thousands of children's lives each year, indicating substantial progress in achieving the goal of halving child death rate from diarrhoeal diseases. The simple method of using ORS or the home solution of sugar, salt and water can prevent diarrhea from becoming the world's leading killer of children.
Earlier, treatment could be undertaken only by qualified nurses or doctors using expensive intravenous feeding in remote hospitals. But with the discovery of ORT, the treatment can be done at the home of the mother by giving her child the right mix of sugar, salt, and water or by using ORS packets. While a substantial reduction in diarrhea-related cases due to dehydration has happened, globally more work needs to be done. The ‘ORS/ORT package’ has to be routed through the government and through NGOs to reach thousands of parents and children who need it.
Diarrhea and how ORT works
Diarrhea is the passage of watery stools. Body fluids and salts are quickly lost from the body. The child becomes dry (dehydrated) and this is very dangerous and may even lead to the death of the child in case of extreme conditions. Diarrhea is caused by bacteria or viruses, which we carry due to unclean water, dirty hands at mealtime and spoilt food. Children who are malnourished suffer much more, and in turn, diarrhea weakens the children and intensifies the malnourishment. However, it must be noted that there will always be some degree of dehydration and it is only the draining of too much fluid from the body that could cause death.
Diarrhea can be prevented through exclusive breastfeeding, improved weaning practices, use of lavatories, measles immunization, washing hands (the baby's as well), keeping water and food clean, washing hands with soap before touching food and sanitary disposal of stools.
What Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT) does is that it replaces essential body fluids and salts that a child loses in critical quantities during attacks of diarrhea. The treatment consists of using ORS packets with water or by using common salt and sugar mixed in one liter of clean drinking water given to the child by mouth.
How is ORT administered?
Molasses and other forms of raw sugar can be used instead of white sugar as these contain more potassium than white sugar. The alternative solutions include breast milk, gruels (diluted mixtures of cooked cereals and water), carrot soup, green coconut water or water from the cleanest possible source brought to boil and cooled, rice water, fresh fruit juice, light tea. One can also use the pre-packed formula Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS) available in a sachet to make a liter of solution. All this will bring down the prospects of dehydration and loss of fluids in children particularly.
(With inputs from Dr. Chetan Ginigeri, Consultant – Pediatrics and Pediatric Intensive Care, Aster CMI Hospital)
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