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This blog explores insights for multinational corporations, NGOs, academics, social entrepreneurs and others working at the Base of the Pyramid.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Addressing Dynamic Public Health Concerns: LifeStraw and Beyond

By Lisa Smith

Diarrheal disease has been estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be the second leading cause of death and leading cause of malnutrition among children under five years old.  UNICEF and the WHO estimate that approximately 1.5 million children die every year from diarrheal diseases. 

While these statistics are striking and cause for concern, knowledge and experience about treating diarrheal disease is one advantage we have when addressing this public health concern.  In comparison to some other global diseases, we have a good deal of information related to the causes of diarrheal disease, the ways it can be transmitted, prevented and treated.  The question then becomes, why have we not addressed this treatable disease and leading cause of death for our younger generations?

There are, of course, multiple dynamic factors, which can help to explain our struggle to address diarrheal disease.  These include, but certainly are not limited to:  the various types of diarrheal diseases-viral, bacterial or parasitic; the distribution and availability of treatments; education and/or mis-education about priority treatments; and political will to fund and address the disease burden at hand.  Thankfully, the latter of those factors is gaining momentum and many organizations are revisiting diarrhea as a priority health concern separate from general early childhood health care (e.g. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). 

As we consider ways to best use this funding, it becomes especially important for NextBillion readers and contributors to think through the most appropriate products (and with that, technology) and business models to address diarrheal disease. 

One product that has received recent attention from the New York Times is LifeStraw developed by Vestergaard Frandsen.  (You can find the NYT article referenced above here.)  Vestergaard Frandsen uses a "humanitarian entrepreneurship business model" to develop disease control textiles.  LifeStraw is a personal, mobile, water-purification tool that enables individuals to access clean drinking water in areas where it may be in limited supply.  LifeStraw Family is a similar water-purification tool with a higher flow rate to make it suitable for use by a household.

By improving access to clean drinking water, LifeStraw reduces the risk of potential exposure to microbial contamination that causes diarrheal disease.  Future iterations of the LifeStraw model may also include zinc fortification of water.  Zinc, coupled with oral rehydration therapy are the two primary recommended essential medicines by the WHO Department of Essential Medicines and Pharmaceutical Policies for diarrhea treatment.  Ensuring that individuals continue to take fluids while also receiving zinc fortification is a value proposition, which is worthy of further investigation. 

However, LifeStraw and other products like it, may not be the end all solution.  In an NB article from earlier this year, Kevin Starr discusses the need for continued innovation from companies that develop products like LifeStraw (read another article citing the same Kevin Starr video here).  While LifeStraw has received positive feedback in popular media, more evidence is needed to support their assertion of long-term impact.

Indeed, products that are able to address the multiple factors impacting the current diarrheal disease prevalence should be well-suited to long-term business sustainability and provide the greatest public health impact.  As more time passes and more studies on the uptake and efficacy of the LifeStraw product portfolio are done, we will learn more about how well these items reduce the prevalence of diarrhea. We will also learn alongside LifeStraw and others as they continue to innovate and adapt their products with such information. 

Have knowledge of other innovative business models that address diarrheal disease?  Or, have further feedback or experience with LifeStraw? Help continue the conversation by posting a comment below.

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