Childhood Malnutrition in India, Part 2

Malnutrition and Sanitation 

What if children seem to have enough of the appropriate nutritive food, yet still exhibit signs of malnutrition? Could there be something else going on here? Indeed. In the past few years, scientist have discovered a phenomenon called ENVIRONMENTAL ENTEROPATHY which is caused by prolonged exposure to food and water contaminated with feces.

Environmental enteropathy, (EE) also known as gut dysfunction, affects up to 50% of children in the developing world, and causes no overt symptoms or signs in children.

While EE is known to reduce nutrient absorption and to be a significant contributor to child stunting worldwide, there still is no effective treatment for this nor do we understand why it occurs. EE has been recently highlighted as the single most important barrier to achieving normal growth and development of children worldwide.

Sanitation's effect on malnutrition
Sanitation’s effect on malnutrition

This chart is a complex, but worth your time to read. If you click on the article below you will be taken to the article from the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet,  where the authors indicate primary and secondary pathways microbes enter the enteric (digestive) system. We will come back to this when we talk about sanitation and maternal-fetal health over the next few days (From the paper, Child undernutrition, tropical enteropathy, toilets, and handwashing):

A more recent study was published in Science just a few weeks ago and NPR’s All Things Considered covered it in a podcast/article called, Gut microbes may play deadly role in malnutrition. Click below to listen to the four minute story.

It seems we still have a lot to learn about malnutrition in developing nations, and merely providing supplemental foods may not be enough to stem the issue.

Can science and engineering help solve world hunger?

Here is a partial answer from wiseGEEK:

“One way to solve world hunger would be to develop new ways to grow food on a worldwide scale. Many people today live in areas of the world which were never capable of producing sufficient food crops or are nearly impossible to irrigate. Some arable land remains underused because it is under the control of rogue governments or is currently too inaccessible for farming. By developing new methods for maximizing crop growth on substandard land, inhabitants can grow enough food to meet their needs.

Creating new farming technologies could also help solve world hunger. If food can be grown in large hydroponic farms, for example, there would less strain put on traditional soil farms. Farmers in poorer countries could be trained to rotate their crops in order to keep the soil healthier season after season. Better seeds with higher yields or resistance to insect or weather damage could help farmers grow more usable crops on the same amount of arable land. A renewed emphasis on agriculture as a career could also encourage more young people to start their own farms and produce more food for others.

Golden Rice
Golden Rice

Genetically modified food crops (if accepted by a nation–and there is a lot of resistance to this across the world) may grow better in areas of the world where soil is poor or insects besiege the crops. We can also modify the crops so they are more nutritious. The most promising of these is a vitamin A rich rice called Golden Rice:

“Genetically modified rice could be a good source of vitamin A for children in countries where deficiency in the vitamin is common. A new study tested so-called Golden Rice against both spinach and supplements in providing vitamin A to 68 six- to eight-year-olds in China. Researchers found that the rice was as effective as the capsules in giving kids a boost of vitamin A, based on blood tests taken over three weeks. And it worked better than the natural beta-carotene in spinach, the researchers report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” Read more HERE.

With the tools of biotechnology, we can grow more crops on less land, grow new, more nutritious crops, and find new uses for existing crops.

Part 1: The Science of Nutrition and Malnutrition