Lancet once called it “potentially the most important medical advance of the 20th century.” But in the 21st century, oral rehydration therapy (ORT) — a simple, cost-effective treatment given at home using either packets of oral rehydration salts (ORS) or a simple home solution of sugar, salt and water — seems to be on life support. The result is the unnecessary deaths of children under five.
Since the 1970s, ORS has saved an estimated 50 million lives, costing less than US $0.30 per sachet, reported the World Health Organization in 2009. Among major causes of child death, it is now tied for second place, at 14%, with pneumonia.
ORT is also highly cost-effective. A 2005 British Medical Journal paper found that ORT was one of the interventions that “would be chosen on purely cost effectiveness grounds for any level of resource availability.” But after the success of ORT, its uptake has slowed and even reversed in some countries. A 2008 analysis of the change in ORS use in children under 3 between 1992 and 2005 found declines in 23 countries and increases in only 11. Declines in ORT use seemed to occur despite overall improvements in awareness of ORS.