Alleviating malnutrition in kids in conflict areas

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Malnutrition1In two recently published articles, Saskia van der Kam of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and colleagues describe the outcomes of two randomised controlled trials in resource-limited settings to determine if the vicious cycle between childhood illness and malnutrition could be broken with a brief period of food supplementation during recovery from illness.

Over 300,000 children are treated annually for malnutrition by MSF, say the authors. Often malnutrition is linked to a period of illness, and may lead to further illness and even death. The authors conducted 2 randomised controlled trials, one set in Uganda and one in Nigeria, to determine if the progression to moderate or severe acute malnutrition, as revealed by a child’s weight-to-height score or upper arm circumference, can be avoided if children are given a 2 week course of either ready to use therapeutic food (a nutrient supplement based on peanut butter mixed with dried skim milk, vitamins, and minerals) or a micronutrient sachet.

In the Karamoja region of East Uganda, an agro-pastoral region, over 2,200 malnourished children aged between 6 and 59 months were recruited into the trial and the authors show children treated with the ready to use supplementation showed a 33% reduction in the incidence of malnutrition compared with the control group. Supplementation with micronutrients did not show a significant reduction. Overall there were also fewer deaths observed in the ready to use supplement group than in the micronutrient sachet supplement or control groups.

In the authors’ companion trial, set in Goronyo in Nigeria, there was no reduction in the incidence of malnutrition in children receiving either the ready to use formulation of the micronutrient sachet. The authors note that in this setting the overall level of malnutrition is higher, suggesting that a longer period of supplementation might possibly be effective.

As large scale trials to determine if a brief period of food supplementation in children who are not severely ill can alleviate malnutrition and reduce deaths, these studies provide a substantial advance by showing that supplementation can be effective but may depend on local phenomena such as levels of morbidity. Better understanding these phenomena could help tailor future efforts to reduce deaths in this most vulnerable group.

Abstract 1
Background
Globally, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) treats more than 300,000 severely malnourished children annually. Malnutrition is not only caused by lack of food but also by illnesses and by poor infant and child feeding practices. Breaking the vicious cycle of illness and malnutrition by providing ill children with nutritional supplementation is a potentially powerful strategy for preventing malnutrition that has not been adequately investigated. Therefore, MSF investigated whether incidence of malnutrition among ill children Methods and Findings
We investigated the effect of two types of nutritional supplementation on the incidence of malnutrition in ill children presenting at outpatient clinics during March 2011 to April 2012 in Kaabong, Karamoja region, Uganda, a resource-poor region where malnutrition is a chronic problem for its seminomadic population. A three-armed, partially-blinded, randomised controlled trial was conducted in children diagnosed with malaria, diarrhoea, or lower respiratory tract infection. Non-malnourished children aged 6 to 59 mo were randomised to one of three arms: one sachet/d of ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), two sachets/d of micronutrient powder (MNP), or no supplement (control) for 14 d for each illness over 6 mo. The primary outcome was the incidence of first negative nutritional outcome (NNO) during the 6 mo follow-up. NNO was a study-specific measure used to indicate progression to moderate or severe acute malnutrition; it was defined as weight-for-height z-score <−2, mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) Of the 2,202 randomised participants, 51.2% were girls, and the mean age was 25.2 (±13.8) mo; 148 (6.7%) participants were lost to follow-up, 9 (0.4%) died, and 14 (0.6%) were admitted to hospital. The incidence rates of NNO (first event/year) for the RUTF, MNP, and control groups were 0.143 (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.107–0.191), 0.185 (0.141–0.239), and 0.213 (0.167–0.272), respectively. The incidence rate ratio was 0.67 (95% CI, 0.46–0.98; p = 0.037) for RUTF versus control; a reduction of 33.3%. The incidence rate ratio was 0.86 (0.61–1.23; p = 0.413) for MNP versus control and 0.77 for RUTF versus MNP (95% CI 0.52–1.15; p = 0.200). The average numbers of study illnesses for the RUTF, MNP, and control groups were 2.3 (95% CI, 2.2–2.4), 2.1 (2.0–2.3), and 2.3 (2.2–2.5). The proportions of children who died in the RUTF, MNP, and control groups were 0%, 0.8%, and 0.4%.
The findings apply to ill but not malnourished children and cannot be generalised to a general population including children who are not necessarily ill or who are already malnourished.
Conclusions
A 2-wk nutrition supplementation programme with RUTF as part of routine primary medical care to non-malnourished children with malaria, LRTI, or diarrhoea proved effective in preventing malnutrition in eastern Uganda. The low incidence of malnutrition in this population may warrant a more targeted intervention to improve cost effectiveness.

Abstract 2
Background
Globally, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) treats more than 300,000 severely malnourished children annually. Malnutrition is not only caused by lack of food and poor infant and child feeding practices but also by illnesses. Breaking the vicious cycle of illness and malnutrition by providing ill children with nutritional supplementation is a potentially powerful strategy for preventing malnutrition that has not been adequately investigated. Therefore, MSF investigated whether incidence of malnutrition among ill children Methods and Findings
We investigated the effect of supplementation with ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) and a micronutrient powder (MNP) on the incidence of malnutrition in ill children presenting at an outpatient clinic in Goronyo during February to September 2012. A three-armed, partially-blinded, randomised controlled trial was conducted in children diagnosed as having malaria, diarrhoea, or lower respiratory tract infection. Children aged 6 to 59 mo were randomised to one of three arms: one sachet/d of RUTF; two sachets/d of micronutrients or no supplement (control) for 14 d for each illness over 6 mo. The primary outcome was the incidence of first negative nutritional outcome (NNO) during the 6 mo follow-up. NNO was a study-specific measure used to indicate occurrence of malnutrition; it was defined as low weight-for-height z-score (<−2 for non-malnourished and <−3 for moderately malnourished children), mid-upper arm circumference Of the 2,213 randomised participants, 50.0% were female and the mean age was 20.2 (standard deviation 11.2) months; 160 (7.2%) were lost to follow-up, 54 (2.4%) were admitted to hospital, and 29 (1.3%) died. The incidence rates of NNO for the RUTF, MNP, and control groups were 0.522 (95% confidence interval (95% CI), 0.442–0.617), 0.495 (0.415–0.589), and 0.566 (0.479–0.668) first events/y, respectively. The incidence rate ratio was 0.92 (95% CI, 0.74–1.15; p = 0.471) for RUTF versus control; 0.87 (0.70–1.10; p = 0.242) for MNP versus control and 1.06 (0.84–1.33, p = 0.642) for RUTF versus MNP. A subgroup analysis showed no interaction nor confounding, nor a different effectiveness of supplementation, among children who were moderately malnourished compared with non-malnourished at enrollment. The average number of study illnesses for the RUTF, MNP, and control groups were 4.2 (95% CI, 4.0–4.3), 3.4 (3.2–3.6), and 3.6 (3.4–3.7). The proportion of children who died in the RUTF, MNP, and control groups were 0.8% (95% CI, 0.3–1.8), 1.8% (1.0–3.3), and 1.4% (0.7–2.8).
Conclusions
A 2-wk supplementation with RUTF or MNP to ill children as part of routine primary medical care did not reduce the incidence of malnutrition. The lack of effect in Goronyo may be due to a high frequency of morbidity, which probably further affects a child’s nutritional status and children’s ability to escape from the illness–malnutrition cycle. The duration of the supplementation may have been too short or the doses of the supplements may have been too low to mitigate the effects of high morbidity and pre-existing malnutrition. An integrated approach combining prevention and treatment of diseases and treatment of moderate malnutrition, rather than prevention of malnutrition by nutritional supplementation alone, might be more effective in reducing the incidence of acute malnutrition in ill children.

PLOS Medicine material
PLOS Medicine abstract 1
PLOS Medicine abstract 2


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