Treating the Deadliest Killer in Developing Nations

Going green — By Stephanie on December 1, 2009 at 6:04 am
Kenyan princesses

Diarrhea kills - but is preventable

Wonder what the deadliest killer is in Africa and Asia?  Is it AIDS?  Malaria?

You’d be wrong on both counts.  More people die each year from diarrhea than any other illness in these areas.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO) more than 1.6 million children under the age of 5 die from this preventable disease.  Every 15 seconds, another innocent life is lost.  A full 20% of children in Mali do not live to see their 5th birthday.

We’ve written about the need for clean, potable water across developing nations – and what you can do to help.  Now, it appears that hope comes in the form of a nutrition supplement, as well.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development have started distribution of zinc tablets and zinc syrup to people living in villages in Pakistan and Bangladesh, India.  Even though heavy rains and unreliable wells may cause illness, taking 20 mg of zinc daily can dramatically improve health and reduce mortality rates.

Growing Up Fast

Can you help bring zinc to developing nations?

Donations to fund zinc therapy have poured in over recent years.  But much more help is needed.  For a mere 30 cents per day, zinc tablets and oral rehydration therapy (ORT) can treat a sick child or adult.  Unfortunately, many areas use only ORT, which is effective in replacing fluids, but does not necessarily address the diarrhea itself.

ORT requires mixing re hydration salts with clean water (which is itself in short supply).  The result is that the exit of fluids from the body is slowed which allows electrolytes to be absorbed through intestinal walls, preventing deadly dehydration.  Unfortunately, only 35% of families in developing nations use ORT when diarrhea strikes.

Zinc tablets can result in a much more easy, effective treatment.  Save the Children U.S. donated $680,000 from a charity concert in 2007 to purchase and distribute zinc tablets south of Mali.  But there is more that can be done.

Baby of Zimbabwe

Malaria, AIDS and Diarrhea - three deadly killers

Why zinc? According to a Time Magazine article:

Exactly how zinc stops diarrhea is not entirely clear.  Olivier Fontaine, a diarrhea expert for the WHO, believes that since the mineral is an essential ingredient in about 300 enzymes, boosting zinc levels strengthens the body’s immunity, thus preventing diarrhea from turning deadly.  A single course apparently also staves off further bouts of diarrhea for about three months – long enough to see a community through the deadly rainy seasons.

Zinc was discovered as a potential remedy to the disease about 15 years ago when children in New Delhi were given syrup with 20 mg. of zinc, and the rate of diarrhea dropped dramatically.

Unfortunately, stopping diarrhea isn’t as “glamorous” as finding a cure for AIDS or preventing malaria.  You’ll hear about World Malaria Day and World AIDS Day.  But there is no Treat Diarrhea Day.  Whether its the nature of the disease, or other factors… we need to focus on diarrhea as much as we do on other diseases in developing nations.

With the discovery of zinc as a treatment, there is new hope to raise awareness and fund treatment.  Because it is relatively inexpensive, some are optimistic that zinc tablets will someday be as common as band-aids in a family’s first aid box.

There are so many heartbreaking stories of women and men that have lost children to the preventable disease of diarrhea.  If you want to help bring zinc tablets to developing nations, there are several ways you can help.

Check out these websites:


World Health Organization

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

U.S. Agency for International Development

Tags: , , , , ,


  1. Thanks for this Steph! Many people forget that some of the illnesses we commonly think of as “easy to treat” are very dangerous in other countries due to lack of basic nutrients, supplies, etc.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Exactly, Tara! And the fact that the cost is so inexpensive (for us in developed nations) should spur on more people and organizations to bring the treatments to the countries and communities that desperately need them.

Leave a Comment