HIV/AIDS and malaria are major health concerns worldwide, however the World Health Organization (WHO) reports across much of Asia and Africa secretory diarrhea – which accounts for 1.6 million deaths annually – is an even greater threat. Each day in India, diarrhea-related diseases kill 1,250 people, only slightly fewer than the H1N1 virus has killed globally to date (1,500), according to the WHO. Caused by E.coli, cholera, and other bacteria, viruses, or parasites, diarrhea affects individuals more often in areas that lack safe water and appropriate sanitation. In individuals with secretory diarrhea, infectious agents cause too much water to enter the bowel and be evacuated from the body, leading to excessive dehydration and eventually death if appropriate treatment is not received.
In nations of the developing world, including Bangladesh, India, Mali, and Pakistan, aid organizations and government agencies have begun distributing zinc supplements to villagers as a treatment for diarrhea. Data from recent studies documented in the August 2009 issue of the Journal of Leukocyte Biology suggest that zinc may help to activate the T-cells needed to destroy viruses and bacteria, including those that cause diarrhea. Time Magazine reports that in tablet or liquid form, zinc can be used in combination with oral-rehydration therapy (ORT). While it is not entirely clear how zinc helps halt diarrhea, Oliver Fontaine, a diarrhea specialist for the WHO, explains that a single course of zinc treatment can stave off diarrhea for three months.
Unlike zinc, which often produces an immediate improvement in an individual’s health, the glucose present in ORT (a solution of sugars and salts) slows the evacuation of fluids allowing for the absorption of electrolytes in the intestines, and halting the progression of dehydration to a chronic state. Because of the delay in the improvement of symptoms with ORT, “Mothers don’t see ORT as real treatment,” according to Eric Swedberg, senior director of health and nutrition at Save the Children U.S. Though ORT is an effective treatment for diarrhea, only about 35 percent of families in diarrhea-stricken countries utilize the method.
By offering zinc in combination with ORT, government-run programs in Ethiopia and Tanzania hope to increase the number of people surviving diarrheal outbreaks. Additionally, efforts are being made in Mali to add zinc to the country’s list of essential drugs, a step towards improving the distribution of the tablets. To halt the recent outbreaks of diarrhea in Nepal that have led to 235 deaths to date, the Office of the Prime Minister has begun coordinating efforts to construct a toilet in each household, provide sources of potable water, and improve waste disposal systems. In addition, the Nepali government has mobilized 298 personnel to aid in providing treatment in the area through 89 health camps.
To support these and other similar efforts, funding for the provision of the potentially life-saving drugs, and awareness of their effectiveness must be increased. In 2007, only four percent of all U.S. funding for research of epidemics in the developing world was devoted to finding solutions to decreasing the number of diarrhea-related deaths. Support from organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have provided some support, but additional funding is still needed not only to ensure that zinc tablets are more widely distributed, but also to assist in efforts to improve the quality of available water and waste treatment measures.