How A Bengali Doctor Saved Millions At Refugee With Innovative Therapy


New Delhi: Bangladesh is celebrating the golden jubilee of its 1971 liberation war on Thursday, and it’s a day very important in the history of India, which defeated Pakistan in the war that saw thousands of soldiers laying down their lives to free the neighboring country.

But not many remember an achievement India made during the war, in the medical field. The major health innovation is still saving lives across the world.

In 1971, after West Pakistan sent military to West Pakistan and the Bangladesh Liberation War started, millions of people were left homeless and fled to India as borders were opened. Numerous refugee camps were set up along the India-Bangladesh border. Soon, there was a cholera outbreak in the camps and the water-borne infectious disease started to claim lives.

It was a Bengali doctor who then took care of the refugees, creating what we call ORS (oral rehydration salt) sachets.

Dr Dilip Mahalanabis, a pediatrician and clinical scientist, saved several lives with this simple, inexpensive and yet effective therapy, which has been called the 20th century’s most important medical advance.

Cholera causes diarrhoea that leads to dehydration and can even result in death.

Dr Mahalanabis, now 86 years old, now lives in Kolkata.

He had started working on Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT) as a researcher for Johns Hopkins University International Center for Medical Research and Training (JHUICMRT) earlier in 1966.

Before the 1971 war, the trials on the efficacy of ORS were done only in labs, according to reports. Mahalanabis, however, managed to introduce ORS in the refugee camps of Bongaon during a cholera outbreak.

“The process was not at all easy as it deviated from the traditional methods of treatment for diarrhoea and cholera,” he told The Daily Mail in a 2013 interview.

“I had to spent years working on the project, making experts and scientists believe that it can do wonders on patients suffering from intestinal diseases,” he added.

Dr Mahalanabis said “it was urgent to provide them with correct proportions of rehydration ingredients”.

“And I decided to treat people with a simple solution of sugar and salt called ORS – a simple solution that turned out to be a miraculous tool to bring down death rates in the camps.”

‘Most Important Medical Advance Of 20th Century’

Once dubbed “potentially the most important medical advance” of the 20th century by The Lancet, this simple treatment called ORS solution saves millions of lives every year.

Dr Dhiman Barua, who began working for the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1965 with the Cholera Control Team based in Manila, Philippines, shared his experience after visiting Mahalanabis in the refugee camps in 1971.

“I saw an incredible number of sick and dehydrated people lying on the floor there. Mahalanabis kept drums of oral rehydration fluid each with a nozzle on the side and told relatives to fetch the solution in cups and mugs to feed the patients. When the patient is thirsty, he drinks. When he’s no longer thirsty, he’s no longer seriously dehydrated,” Dr Barua, who had moved to the WHO head office in 1966 as a medical officer working on cholera and other diarrhoeal diseases, was quoted as saying on the WHO website.

“When the patient is healthy again, the solution tastes bad. When you are very dehydrated, the taste of ORS is wonderful. What I saw in Bangaon convinced me that our decision, to use the ORS solution in Africa and allow minimally trained people to administer it, had been right,” added Dr Barua, who established the Diarrhoeal Diseases Control in 1978.

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