According to the World Health Organization, 30 million children in Bangladesh and southern India suffer from malnourishment, and in Bangladesh, 40 percent of children under the age of 5 suffer from stunted growth.
A recent study published in Nature, an international weekly journal of science, explores the reason some malnourished children still remain ill even after receiving food. Human stomachs contain bacteria that aid in the absorption and digestion of food. In severely malnourished children, even after they are supplied with food, the necessary forms of bacteria did not return to their systems. Research of doctors from Washington University in Saint Louis suggests that malnutrition greatly damages this process to the extent that it is not able to be adequately repaired.
Dr. Jeffery Gordon from Washington University in Saint Louis Medical School explained to an NBC reporter how he began to analyze this problem. Deciding to focus on the region of Dhaka, Bangladesh, Gordon first ran a series of tests on fecal samples of healthy children from infancy to age 2 in order to get an idea of how the microbial communities should appear. He then ran the same test on 64 malnourished children of the same age as the first group before, both during and after they received food supplements. He split the group in two and provided one with a peanut based food (Plumpy’Nut) and the other with a rice and lentil based food (Khichuri-Halwa) and took fecal samples from the children every month for four months.
Even after the children from both groups began to gain weight, neither group matured normally. Additionally, the children’s microbial communities did not mature normally, either. Dr. Sathish Subramanian, also from Washington University, commented in an interview with the BBC, “the severity of a child’s malnourishment was tied closely with the degree of immaturity of his or her gut microbial community.”
While the exact process that is occurring is still being researched, it is clear, as Dr. Gordon stated in his interview, “We can’t just think about food as a repair item.” His next move is to determine what exactly makes the digestive system livable for the bacteria that aid in food absorption and digestion.