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Life-Saving Treatment Not Reaching Children With Diarrhea

The World Health Organization says many children in poor countries are dying of diarrhea because simple life-saving treatments are not reaching them. The U.N. agency has just launched a study, which calls for new research into ways of better delivering these treatments to children at risk.

The World Health Organization reports diarrheal disease causes 20 percent of the deaths among children under five.

The World Health Organization says each year 1.8-million children, or four children every minute, die from this easily preventable and curable disease.

Lead report author Olivier Fontaine is Medical Officer with WHO's Department of Child and Adolescent Health and Development. He says it is totally unacceptable that children in poor countries should die simply because they cannot get the treatment they need to stay alive.

"We have tools to treat diarrhea and to really reduce mortality," said Olivier Fontaine. "In fact, we have two very cost-effective tools. Oral re-hydration salt, it is only five cents a packet and zinc tablets, about 10 cents for a treatment. With this treatment, we can reduce mortality due to diarrhea. In fact, we have done it. In 1980, five million kids under five were dying of diarrhea and in 20 years, we have reduced that to 1.8 million. This means that about 50 million kids have been saved from dying of diarrhea because of this very cheap treatment."

But, Dr. Fontaine says, the situation has stagnated in the past 10 years with the number of children dying from diarrhea remaining stable. Ironically, he says the life-saving diarrhea program appears to have become a victim of its own success.

He says interest in this disease has been steadily decreasing, following the development of cost-effective interventions in the 1980s. And, this, he says has dried up available research funds, which are going toward the development of products for other diseases.

He says urgent action must be taken to redress this problem. Otherwise, poor countries will not reach the Millennium Development Goal that aims to cut child deaths by two-thirds by 2015.

"Kids dying from diarrhea are obviously the poorest of the poor and the most difficult to reach," he said. "In some parts of Africa, people with diarrhea die because they are three, four, five hours away from this type of treatment. So, it is clear that research on delivery is key to reach the Millennium Development Goal. If we want to reduce mortality by 2015, as this exercise showed, we have to find ways of delivering this product to the people who need it."

The World Health Organization says $126 billion were spent on funding health research in 2003. But, that money has not always been targeted at diseases that affect the greatest number of people.

For example, it says research on diarrhea received about one-tenth of the amount spent on type 2 diabetes. The World Health Organization is calling for donors to provide more support for diarrhea and other neglected childhood diseases.