Of the 10 special scientific innovations of the year 2019, major credit must go to Bangladesh’s nutrition scientists. International scientists have recognised that after coming up with oral saline, scientists of icddr,b have come up with yet another extremely important innovation. A small yet significant report about this appeared on 7 January in Prothom Alo, ‘Achievement in infant food research’. The report perhaps will not be able to give a comprehensive idea on the extensive impact of this innovation.
We will certainly be curious to know what prompted the American Association for the Advancement of Science journal to place this innovation among the top 10 best research works of last year. What have the results of this research yielded that will change the face of infant food and nutrition in the country?
Child malnutrition is a problem that can push Bangladesh towards serious risk in the future. Undernourished mothers inevitably give birth to undernourished infants. After that, unhygienic environment, lack of nutritious food and lack of awareness put the life of an undernourished child more at risk.
Research shows that as an undernourished infant’s digestive system is not fully developed, their bodies cannot fully absorb nutrition from their food intake. This leads to stunted growth. These children who have been suffering from undernourishment for long, reach extreme malnutrition when suddenly falling ill or facing adverse natural or manmade disaster. These wasted children then fall victim to extreme malnutrition.
These emaciated children face the highest risk of death. Even if they survive, their future is bleak due to their physical and mental deficiencies. Rather than becoming valuable human resources, they become a burden upon the country. One out of every 10 children under five years of age in the country is victim of this alarming condition.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has a two-pronged recommendation for treatment of such malnutrition. Firstly, hospital treatment is required if children with stunted growth suffer from diarrhoea or any other disease-related complications. In their case, long term treatment is required. It takes an average of three to four weeks for them to recover from malnutrition. In most cases it is not only difficult, but nearly impossible for their families to keep their infants under treatment at the hospital for such a long span of time.
In order to ensure that children of stunted growth do not fall through the gap in medical care, various countries have taken up an alternative method with the approval of WHO. Under this alternative method, a severely undernourished child can remain at home and be brought back from the extreme edge of malnutrition. A food comprising a mixture of milk, nuts, oil, sugar, vitamins and minerals can be fed to the children in their own homes. These packaged foods are high in calorie content and can rapidly dispel a child’s malnutrition. Such imported packaged food had so long been used to treat undernourished infants in Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as in Africa and Latin America.
These packaged foods are being provided for the treatment of undernourished Rohingya children in Bangladesh. Though this is being administered to the Rohingya children, it has not yet been given approval for the children of our country. As to why this internationally packaged item has not been given approval to dispel the malnutrition of Bangladesh’s children, the answer is clear. Import of the item is costly. But perhaps the bigger reason is that the nutritionists of the country are divided in opinion about this treatment.
Despite high costs, one school of nutritionists in the country feels this is the lesser of the evils as most of the backward people cannot keep their children for so long in hospital to be treated. And not all upazila hospitals have facilities for such treatment. There are around 1.1 million undernourished children in the country. Will they just suffer and fade away? Until alternative nutrition packages are manufactured in the country, these nutritionists are in favour of this imported packaged food to be given to the children and thus save their lives.
The other school of nutritionists feels that this important packaged nutrition does not completely dispel malnutrition and just temporarily helps the child. They feel that these packaged foods may have side effects which will later lead to increased health risks for the children. They also fear that these packaged foods may change the taste habits of the children and they will become dependent on these. It will be difficult to wean them back to homemade food.
Both schools of nutritionists have their logic. It is nothing new for scientists to have differences among themselves. The problem is, while they discuss and debate, the lives of many children are at risk. They are gradually sinking permanently into illness and disease, physical and mental vulnerability.
While this debate hung in midair, the icddr,b scientists came up with a local solution. Their nutrition package comprises local ingredients of chickpeas, bananas, soya and nuts. Their research reveals that this will help children overcome malnutrition. It will also create bacteria that will help the child’s body easily absorb the nutrition. And as the food is made with local ingredients, the nutritionists no longer need to fear that the children’s eating habits will change.
This innovation will keep the cost of the nutrition formula down. Replacing milk with soya will halve malnutrition treatment costs. Bangladesh’s children will be directly benefited. And as the costs are low, children all over the world will be benefited from this and malnutrition treatment will increase manifold around the world.
The scientists of icddr,b have presented the world with an easily available weapon to fight against malnutrition. They have brought honour to the country. We salute them.
* Asfia Azim is a public health and nutrition activist.