Friday, March 11, 2011

Using Biotechnology to Fight Diarrhea

A common mortal from a developed country would be hard to convince that in Southeast Asia and Africa, diarrhea is responsible for as much as 8.5% and 7.7%, respectively. Yet this is the stark reality. Diarrhea is mostly caused by gastrointestinal infections. About 2.2 million people globally die of gastrointestinal-induced diarrhea. The bulk of these are children from developing countries. These are countries that lack clean drinking water- the major cause of gastrointestinal infections.

What is the role of science in ameliorating this grave situation? Many would rightly argue that provision of clean drinking water is the surest way of eradicating diarrhea. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1.1 billion people lack access to improved water sources with another 2.4 billion out of reach of basic sanitation.


The world may exude optimism about providing clean drinking water to the poorest of the poor. But this remains a milieu. In the meantime, diarrhea will continue to claim the lives of millions of children, mainly from poor countries.

Using Biotechnology to Fight Diarrhea

How can science prevent these unnecessary deaths? Can it be through provision of drugs? Oh no! They are unaffordable to the poor. The poor live on less than a dollar a day.

Modern biotechnology could offer a solution. Biotechnologists have discovered a rice variety, which would produce proteins found in human milk, saliva and tears. When these proteins are converted into powder form, they can be used in granola bars and drinks to help infants in developing countries avoid death from diarrhea. This is the best way to curb runaway diarrhea in developing world such as Africa. These drinks or granola bars would be considerably cheap compared to drugs.

African farmers can also be encouraged to grow this variety of rice. First, it will boost their household income and effectively improve their living standards. It will also make the accompanying protein-rich drinks and granola bars cheaper making them accessible and affordable to all.

The biotech industry has a role to play in hastening technology diffusion. With regard to this new rice variety, for instance, they should consider domesticating its production in Africa for this is where the action is!

Rice is an important crop in most African countries. In West Africa, for instance, rice is considered a staple food. It contributes more calories and protein than any other cereal in humid West Africa. Despite the integral place that rice occupies in the diet of African consumers, its production remains pathetically poor.

Compared to other crops such as corn or soybean, improvement of rice varieties has been regrettably slow. Only one genetically transformed rice trait - tolerance to the herbicide glufosinate -is currently available in the market. It has not reached Africa yet.

"Golden rice" genetically transformed to produce pro-vitamin A is still under discussion. It is touted as a cure for Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. It is, however, yet to be commercialized.

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James Wachai is a communication specialist who uses his expertise to increase public understanding of science and technology, specifically biotechnology. Read more from James at

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