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Oral Rehydration Solution

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Oral rehydration salt-sugar solution (ORS) is a simple at-home concoction containing “a pinch of salt, a fistful of sugar, a half liter of water”. The solution was first taught in Bangladesh households 26 years ago, after being tested in a cholera outbreak in 1971. Over the past two decades, ORS has been attributed to reducing the Bangladeshi death rate from diarrhea three-fold, to 5 percent. The International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research in Bangladesh has trained more than 27,000 workers from 70 countries to combat diarrheal disease and death worldwide. It has been reported that approximately 800 million ORS packets are produced each year, saving 50 million lives (Yahoo News).

Worldwide, up to 4 million children die each year from diarrhea (MedicineNet). The condition can be the result of a number of infectious agents, including viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrheal disease and is attributed to more than a half million deaths a year, mostly in children and infants in underdeveloped countries. Cholera is another disease often associated with diarrhea and its fatal effects, even in the history of the United States. Death can be a consequence of diarrhea if the fluids that are lost are not replaced.

The human body is made up of 50-70 percent water, with various tissues being comprised of more or less. Human blood plasma is 91 percent water and makes up more than half the blood volume (Scanlon and Sanders, Essentials of Anatomy and Physiology, 2003). Water plays a role in human cell structure and nutrient transport, as well as maintaining blood pressure, blood pH, and ion balances within the tissues. A person who suffers from a diarrheal disease loses water through the intestines and bowel, compromising the cells in various tissues, including the brain, if that water is not replaced.

The oral rehydration solution replaces the lost water, but it also provides ions and minerals that help the absorption process and the maintenance of homeostasis within the body, minimizing the severity of the diarrhea’s effects on the sufferer (much like some "sports drinks" on the market in the United States). Bangladesh has been a beneficiary of the efforts of aid organizations, such as BRAC, that have been teaching households how to mix the solution. It has integrated into the regular treatment of diarrheal disease, as well as hydration after exertion in the hot sun, preventing dehydration from other factors. However, the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research still treats 100,000 patients a year, because the ORS is not a cure for what causes diarrhea, it is a treatment for dehydration.

More about this author: Alicia M Prater PhD

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