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Reducing child mortality in Zambia by ‘hitching’ medical supplies to drinks crates

In Zambia, 15% of deaths among under-fives are caused by diarrhoea (according to World Health Organization data), making it one of the main child killers.

Many of these deaths – estimates suggest up to three-quarters - could be avoided if medical centres used oral rehydration salts combined with zinc tablets. This simple course of treatment costs around 0.50 dollars per patient, making it affordable even in developing countries.

And yet, only around two-fifths of children receive oral rehydration salts when they fall ill with diarrhoea. The figure is even lower for those children given zinc, which helps to reduce the severity and length of the illness. Given that medical staff can easily be trained to administer the treatment, the problem lies mainly with distribution.

Three decades ago, a British aid worker in Zambia wondered why he could find Coca-Cola bottles in the most far-flung places, but basic medical supplies were lacking. Now, Simon Berry has approached Coca-Cola to initiate a new scheme whereby the company’s trucks and bikes will deliver oral rehydration salts along with the drink. In every crate of Coca-Cola, 10 anti-diarrhoea kits (containing eight sachets of salts and a 10-tablet course of zinc) can be fitted in the spaces.

The pilot project of this new distribution scheme will begin in September this year. It will be run by an organisation fittingly called ‘ColaLife’, which will package up the drugs with the Coca-Cola. Run in conjunction with a government health agency, the programme is expected to work along commercial lines. ADKs will be sold to wholesalers and retailers, much like the drink itself. Everyone along the distribution chain will make a small profit margin. It is then up to a public awareness campaign to persuade caregivers and health professionals of the benefits. Health workers will receive training and will also be incentivised to purchase the ADKs with discounts from coupons and mobile-phone transfers. 

A team funded by the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF) will be monitoring the project and the UK’s Department For International Development is providing the majority of funding for ColaLife. Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Minister, told IRIN “ColaLife is exactly the type of new approach that could help accelerate progress and save lives in Zambia and beyond”. Coca-Cola will also be watching the project and has said it is open to replicating the model in other countries if the initiative proves successful. For the sake of many thousands of vulnerable Zambian children, as well as those elsewhere in the developing world, observers and participants will be pinning their hopes on such success. 

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