ORS: The salt that saved millions of lives

ORS: The salt that saved millions of lives

It’s not a vaccine; neither is it a drug. It does not taste bitter, nor is it expensive. Yet, oral rehydration salts (ORS) have saved millions of lives in the last few decades, thanks to science. The magic ingredient is a humble mixture of sugar and salt — a seemingly uncomplicated formula for such a valuable drug. Yet, it came to light after millions of lives were lost to deadly diseases like cholera. It is estimated that ORS has brought down the risk of death due to dehydration by 93% worldwide. It is no wonder then that ORS makes it to the World Health Organisation'sList of Essential Medicines’.

The history and development of the Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT), which includes the use of these salts, has a deep association with Bengal — the epicentre of two cholera pandemics. In 1953, Dr Hemendra Nath Chatterjee, an Indian physician from Kolkata, was the first to show that a mixture of salt and sugar could rehydrate cholera patients suffering from mild to moderate dehydration. 

Today, Oral Rehydration Therapy is used worldwide to treat most cases of diarrhoea. Here’s how it works. A sachet of the ORS, containing moderate amounts of sodium chloride, potassium chloride, sodium citrate, and glucose, is mixed with a litre of water and fed continuously. When mixed with glucose, our small intestine absorbs sodium better, thus preventing loss of electrolytes. The mixture of sugar and salt is also carefully crafted. Too much sugar will make diarrhoea worse, while too much salt will not benefit either. Those who cannot access a readymade-sachet can make this mixture at home by mixing six teaspoons of sugar, half a teaspoon of salt, and a litre of water.