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Food Alone Not Enough for Malnourished Children

Malnourished Children
Researchers studying malnourished children in Bangladesh have concluded that current therapeutic food interventions, while effective in saving lives, is not enough to reverse damage done in formative years.

Doctors have been trying to address problems that formerly malnourished children now in treatment still face such as stunted growth, immune deficiencies and slow intellectual growth. It is now becoming apparent that these development challenges are due to an immature system of microbial organisms that inhabit the digestive tracts of healthy children.

In the study, researchers compared fecal samples of 64 malnourished children to samples from 50 healthy Bangladeshi children that had been collected monthly over the first two years of their lives. In the healthy samples, 24 species of bacteria were found and used to predict the maturity of a child’s microbial system.

The study showed that when these children were afflicted with diarrhea, their microbial systems quickly recovered. The malnourished children hospitalized for diarrhea showed little recovery in the maturity of these systems after treatment with antibiotics and therapeutic foods, as they were lacking in healthy microbes to begin with.

This deficiency likely stems from undernourishment in the first two years of life, a formative period that is essential to developing a healthy brain, immune system and microbial system.

“Perhaps healthy growth and attainment of our full potential requires healthy development of our microbial organ, and also microbes living in other parts of our bodies,” said researcher Jeffrey I. Gordon of Washington University in St. Louis.

Current treatment for undernourishment includes rehydration, a liquid diet of milk suji (whole milk powder, rice powder, sugar and soya oil) and a series of multivitamins and antibiotics to help fight infection. This method has decreased the mortality rate in malnourished children by 47 percent and reduced risk of hypoglycemia.

Researchers in the recent study questioned the long-term results of such treatment protocols and the extent to which they restore normal growth and development. Gordon stated that the current methods should be adjusted to include probiotic supplements, as well as prolonged consumption of therapeutic foods.

“We need to think of food as interacting with this microbial organ,” he said.

Ed Yong, a science writer for Discover Magazine, writes that roughly 1,000 species of bacteria reside in the human bowel, though the makeup of these species varies from person to person. Each individual carries about 160 different bacterial species; it is estimated that 57 exist in the majority of the population. These microbes serve functions such as breaking down complex sugars, producing vitamins and fatty acids and converting chemicals into useful substances.

Factors that impact the development of healthy bacteria include diet, genetics and locale. Research has shown that even the method of delivery can impact the bacterial makeup of an infant; those that are delivered via C-section show less diversity in microbial systems than those delivered naturally. These differences can affect other facets of daily life including susceptibility to disease, predisposition to obesity and the ease with which certain foods are digested.

– Kristen Bezner

Sources: Discover, Science Direct, National Geographic 1, National Geographic 2, Nature
Photo: Chai Counselors