More than 20 million children worldwide are affected by malnutrition and over one million children die each year. That’s why the fact that two studies recently produced the first new information about the causes and treatment of malnutrition is so important.
Both of these studies were initiated due to a disturbing observation. Although enriched peanut butter, also known as therapeutic food, is the best-known method for treating malnutrition, some children were dying despite having received it. Other children were failing to weight gain as much as they should have. Scientists have believed these results were due to infections or unusual conditions in the stomach- now they have two studies to prove it.
The first study showed that simply giving an antibiotic the usual treatment regimen can save tens of thousands of lives. Incorporating either amoxicillin or cefdinir as part of the treatment for malnutrition helps prevent and fight of the infections that malnourished children are more likely to catch. The results from the studies were so effective that the World Health Organization will most likely recommend greater use of antibiotics in their recommendations for treating malnutrition, to be published next month. Using antibiotics for just a week helped produce greater weight gain and improved children’s chance of survival.
The study involved 2,767 children with severe malnutrition who were randomized to receive either a placebo or antibiotic with their therapeutic food. 7.4% of the children taking placebo died, compared to 4.1% of children taking cefdinir and 4.8% of children taking amoxicillin. This translates into 2-3 lives saved per every 100 children treated. In a million children this could mean saving more than 20,000 lives. And just a weeklong treatment with antibiotics is unlikely to produce antibiotic resistance.
The second study showed that kwashikor, a form of malnutrition that is perplexingly only developed by some children with malnutrition, may be caused by an imbalance of bacteria in the stomach. The study showed that the use of therapeutic food helped improve this condition and reduce malnutrition.
This study looked at twins 3 years and younger, some with kwashikor and some without. They found that children with kwashikor had a less diverse system of bacteria in the stomach than the healthy children. When fed the therapeutic food, the microbiome in the children with kwashikor improved and diversified but the improvement disappeared when the therapeutic food was stopped. The study showed that for the improvement to last, the regimen of therapeutic foods must be continued for longer than the couple of months that is currently recommended.
Both of these studies, although researching different aspects of malnutrition, produced new information that will be invaluable to improving the treatment of malnutrition, saving thousands of children’s lives worldwide.