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Highlight: Pioneer of oral rehydration therapy visits IDRC's Asia regional office in Delhi

April 15, 2016

Dr Richard A. Cash was a guest lecturer at the IDRC Asia Regional Office in New Delhi on March 16, 2015. Dr Cash is renowned for his pioneering work on oral rehydration therapy (ORT), a practical treatment for cholera and other diseases causing diarrheal dehydration. A visiting professor at the Public Health Foundation of India, Dr Cash is a senior lecturer on global health in the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He spoke on  “Taking Science to the People: The Development and Dissemination of ORT."

His talk was particularly timely as IDRC focuses on investing in knowledge and innovation for large-scale positive change under its new strategic plan for 2015-2020. Dr Cash's experience with ORT provided concrete examples of the successes and challenges in taking innovative public health interventions to scale.

Dr Cash spoke of how before ORT was promoted widely, cholera induced diarrhea claimed thousands of lives globally, as there was no access to effective treatment. He traced the story of ORT from its beginnings as targeted research in 1962 at the Cholera Research Laboratory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the Johns Hopkins Center for Medical Research and Training in Kolkata, India. The resulting evidence of ORT’s efficacyoverturned the established medical diarrhea treatments of the day. ORT, an extraordinarily simple solution of sugar, salts, and water, saved the lives of severely dehydrated infants, children and adults. After ample field testing, ORT was promoted worldwide in the late 1970s. Today, ORT can be used in even the most isolated parts of the world to save the lives of millions annually.

In relating his story of taking this "magic bullet" to scale, Dr Cash highlighted the characteristics key for a scalable public health intervention: it must be simple, safe, effective, affordable, accessible, and acceptable. To achieve a successful intervention, he said there must be commitment and coordination of various expertise influenced by “on the ground experience,” multiple field trials, and modifications. 

Renowned for his pioneering work developing oral rehydration therapy, Dr Cash was a joint recipient of Thailand's  2006 Prince Mahidol Award in Public Health. In 2011, he was awarded the Fries Prize for Improving Health for his work in developing Oral Rehydration Therapy.

Arlyne Beeche is a Senior Program Officer based in IDRC’s Asia Regional Office in New Delhi.