By Vivienne Walt / Sogola – TIME

Monday, Aug. 17, 2009

Can One Pill Tame the Illness No One Wants to Talk About?

The first signs of illness in Suleiman Djarra appeared during a heavy rainstorm. The 2 year-old suddenly stopped eating and then developed severe diarrhea, which continued for days, draining him of energy. On the third day, Suleiman's mother Aiseta Traoré carried his listless body to the road outside their village in southern Mali and hitchhiked to the nearest hospital about 9 miles (14 km) away. There, she says, a doctor gave her a pack of vitamins and advised her to take the boy home to recover. Hours after Traoré and Suleiman reached their village, though, the boy died.

Generations of Sogola residents have watched their children fall ill each rainy season, laid low by diarrhea, a disease which kills an astonishing 1.6 million children under 5 every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). "Death is roaming here," says Traoré, 28. "It seems the children who have died are more than the children who live." (See pictures of of how zinc is saving lives in Mali.)


It is hard to grasp the impact diarrhea has on people's lives across Africa and Asia. The disease kills more children than either malaria or AIDS, stunts growth, and forces millions — adults and children alike — to spend weeks at a time off work or school, which hits both a country's economy and its citizens' chances of a better future. In countless villages like Sogola, where people have long drawn water from unreliable wells, diarrhea kills so many that there is a general sense of resignation, as if watching children die is simply one of life's inevitable tragedies. One morning I ask Djene-Sira Diakité how many children she has. "God gave me 10 children, and took five of them back," she says with a shrug.

But now a quiet revolution is under way. Over the past few years, a handful of aid organizations and governments — including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development — have begun distributing zinc supplements to villagers in Bangladesh, India, Mali and Pakistan. Several other groups are working with governments in Africa to introduce zinc, which comes both in tablet form and as a syrup. In Mali, Save the Children U.S. used $680,000 from a 2007 charity concert of American Idol to distribute zinc tablets to a handful of villages in the south of the country. (Read TIME's Persons of the Year cover story on Bill and Melinda Gates.)


So far, the small programs have drawn little attention. But their impact has been dramatic. Zinc pills appear to halt diarrhea in its tracks. "Before, we were terrified when children's stomachs began running, because we knew some of them would die," says Sata Djialla in the Malian village of Morola. "Now our children are not dying of diarrhea."

In Sogola, the packets of tablets provided by Save the Children are kept in a rickety, but locked, wooden closet in a mud building — the closest thing the town has to a pharmacy. There Moussa Traoré, 48, a thin, wan man who's one of two residents entrusted with the closet key, dispenses drugs with a studied seriousness. Since last year he has prescribed children suffering from diarrhea with 20 mg of zinc daily for about two weeks. Throw in oral-rehydration therapy (ORT), which has been the main weapon against diarrhea for the past few decades, and a treatment costs less than $0.30 — affordable even to Sogola's desperately poor families.

Traoré shows me a weathered school exercise book, in which he lists deaths. There are several diarrhea deaths for previous years — but none in 2008 or 2009. "Since zinc arrived we have had no deaths from diarrhea," Traoré says. Cradling her 10-month-old son outside, Maimouna Bakayogo, 32, says she panicked when her baby developed stomach pains, diarrhea and fever. "I was really afraid," she says. "Then I remembered Moussa saying there was zinc in the village. I went to get some from him, and within one day I saw a big difference. The baby looked much better."


Some 3 million children have died of diarrhea since Suleiman. Now donors and governments have a chance to end this global tragedy and save millions. Let's hope they do.