Waterloo grad helps get essential medicines to children

Through his work with ColaLife, health studies and gerontology graduate Rohit Ramchandani tackles the world's second-largest killer of children under five.

By Christian Aagaard

Communications & Public Affairs

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Rhot Ramchandani in ZambiaRohit Ramchandani and a group of children in Zambia, Africa.

The problem is huge, the solution simple, and Rohit Ramchandani and his team are closing the gap.

A graduate of the University of Waterloo’s health studies and gerontology program, and the founder and principal at Antara Global Health Advisors, Ramchandani helps lead a pilot project in Zambia to fight diarrhea, the world’s second-largest killer — behind pneumonia — of children under five.

“You can get a bottle of CocaCola pretty much anywhere in the world, even the most remote parts of developing countries, and yet we have children dying from preventable diseases like diarrhea because they can’t get access to simple medicines,” he says. “Doesn’t that strike you as being somewhat odd?’’

What those children need are doses of oral rehydration salts and zinc. Ramchandani and colleagues Simon and Jane Berry at ColaLife, a non-profit aid agency, have a clever way of getting it to them.

They’ve created a resealable “AidPod” that contains eight sachets of rehydration salts, a packet of zinc tablets, instructions and a bar of soap for handwashing.

Bearing some resemblance to wedge-shaped packaging for sandwiches, the contoured pod fits among soft-drink bottles that often arrive at rural shops in crates strapped to bicycles, motorcycles, and even ox carts.

Going where trucks can’t travel

Ramchandani is ColaLife’s public-health adviser and the principal investigator for the pilot project, which has so far dispatched thousands of pods to shops in rural Zambia by way of a supply chain with old and modern elements. Entrepreneurial distributors on lorries and bicycles are crucial partners.

They cart goods over rough paths and washed out roads to reach shops at the last mile, “where the burden of disease and poverty is often highest,” Ramchandani says.

This, he says, is how solutions to public-health problems in the developing world should be applied: Experts collaborating across many disciplines work with the ingenuity of local systems.

“Waterloo . . . exposed me to the discipline of public health, and the multiple tracks within public health,’’ he says. “Everything from social and behavioural sciences to biostatistics — all of those were encompassed in international health.”

The ColaLife project makes up his dissertation for the doctor of public health program he is pursing at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where he is focusing on implementing sciences and health markets.

In 2013, he joins Waterloo as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Public Health and Health Systems.