Child deaths from diarrhoea can be stopped with a little home-made medicine.
A pinch of salt, a handful of sugar and some clean water is all that is needed to save up to two million children who die each year from diarrhoea, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said.
Diarrhoea causes one-fifth of child deaths worldwide, and in poor countries children suffer the dehydrating condition about four times a year, according to the United Nations agency.
Instead of focusing on ways to stop diarrhoea from striking, the WHO said health authorities ought to ensure care-givers know how to use the re-hydrating recipe, which can be home-made.
"Given the consequences of the disease in terms of persisting child mortality, the level of urgency in dealing with this problem is very different than for other chronic diseases," the authors of a study in the PLoS (Public Library of Science) Medicine journal said.
"This should be reflected in health research policies and investment strategies of the major donors."
Diarrhoea is defined by the WHO as the passage of three or more loose or liquid stools per day, normally the symptom of gastrointestinal infection which can be caused by bacterial, viral, and parasitic organisms.
It can spread through contaminated food or drinking water, or from person-to-person with bad hygiene. When left untreated, severe fluid loss from diarrhoea can lead to death.
The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) has stated that more than half of its disaster response work is now related to diarrhoeal disease outbreaks, such as Zimbabwe's ongoing cholera epidemic that has infected about 90 000 people and killed more than 4 000.Dirty water
"We have noticed a significant increase in the number of operations undertaken to respond to acute situations," said Uli Jaspers, an IFRC water and sanitation expert. "This trend is the combined result of poor hygiene practices, lack of awareness of disease transmission and a shortage of safe water."
Health and aid workers typically hand out pre-packaged "oral re-hydration salts" and zinc tablets, costing a combined 30 U.S. cents per treatment course, to fight diarrhoeal outbreaks.
But the home-made version of the re-hydrating solution could also save lives, said WHO child health expert Olivier Fontaine, who called for more efforts to educate parents and caregivers about the often-overlooked treatment option.
Breastfeeding can also fortify infants against potential health hazards they encounter later in life, according to the PLoS study experts at the WHO as well as hospitals and research centres in the United States, South Africa, Britain, India, Mexico, Brazil, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Croatia.
"The persisting high mortality from diarrhoea in the presence of existing cost-effective interventions and available resources...represents a continuing scandal," the PLos study said.
Still, the IFRC said that given nearly 1 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water, caregivers must also know to treat water before using it as part of any remedy.
"Ensuring that people have basic knowledge to avoid infection from water-borne diseases is fundamental if we are to reduce the number of deaths caused by consumption of infected water," the IFRC's Dominique Praplan said.
Leading nations pledged a decade ago at the United Nations to reduce the number of child deaths by two-thirds by 2015. Without major gains against diarrhoea, the WHO said "the world will fail to achieve" that Millennium Development Goal.