International and local health experts gathered last week to present scientific evidence supporting a new method to prevent and treat the severe dehydration and diarrhea that some officials estimate kills thousands of Cambodian children each year.
Dr Olivier Fontaine, based at the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva, explained to participants an upgraded method of treatment, which entails a new mixture of the so-called oral rehydration salts solution, the standard treatment since the 1970s, taken in combination with a zinc tablet.
“The new oral rehydration treatment, which has less sugar and less salt, is more appropriate for children,” said Dr Severin von Xylander, World Health Organization medical officer for child health, on Monday.
“The solution tastes better, it’s easier to drink, and the children don’t vomit as much after they take it,” he said.
The new solution can reduce the amount of liquid in stools by as much as 30 percent and reduce vomiting by another 30 percent and, therefore, help to further reduce diarrheal mortality because the less liquid a child loses from diarrhea and vomiting, the less dehydration the child suffers.
At the meeting, Fontaine said that providing children with zinc supplements can shorten the duration and severity of diarrheal episodes and can even help prevent diarrhea in the future.
Health experts are hoping to amend the national treatment guidelines so that the new treatment can be used widely in Cambodia, von Xylander said.
Von Xylander said that officials are also working to ensure that zinc is officially registered as a drug in the country, which it currently isn’t.
Dr Sok Touch, director of the Department of Communicable Disease Control at the Ministry of Health, said that no one knows exactly how many Cambodian children die each year from diarrhea, and little is known about what predominant micro-organisms causes the sickness.
“The Ministry of Health is sure that diarrheal disease is a serious killer of young children in this country. According to WHO estimates diarrhea causes about one-fifth to one-fourth of all under-5 deaths,” Sok Touch said.
“However, without rigorous surveillance, we simply do not have the exact numbers. Better surveillance is one of our pressing needs,” he added.
But Sok Touch said that there are some things that Cambodian officials know from recent studies.
For example, it’s known that children aged 6 to 23 months are more prone to diarrhea and that diarrhea is more common in rural areas.
At the meeting, Dr John Wecker, from the US-based Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, shared new information about global causes of diarrhea, especially with rotavirus, a very easy-to-catch germ that causes severe diarrhea, usually with fever and vomiting.
According to Wecker, rotavirus, a major killer of children across the globe, has been poorly understood.
“But now we know that it causes 40 to 50 percent of all serious diarrhea cases, both in the industrialized and developing worlds.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that rotavirus can cause children to lose body fluids rapidly and is especially dangerous for children less than 2 years of age.
Children between 3 and 35 months have the highest risk for getting the infection.
Currently, two new vaccines against rotavirus are currently available in some countries and more are expected to be developed in the near future.
Both the WHO and UN Children’s Fund are strong supporters of increased use of the new treatment solution and zinc supplement, according to a statement from the local office of the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health.