Malnutrition is responsible for the death of 1 million children each year, and its affects are felt by around 20 million.
We periodically hear in the news of large numbers of people starving to death but we rarely stop to truly appreciate the level of suffering experienced by a person who dies of starvation. Those who are malnourished and eventually starve to death suffer an horrific fate. Their death is not sudden and in no way painless. It is the slow, excruciating process of wasting away. Slowly dying as organs shut down and pain and disease ravish the body until it can fight no more.
Malnutrition, especially in its advanced stages, also brings unique problems as the treatment of it does not simply involve increasing a person’s calorie intake by any means possible. Allowing a starving person to eat anything in any amount can also lead to death. Therefore, nutrition must be provided that is both in the correct quantity and contains the correct balance of vitamins and minerals.
In the fight against malnutrition, the simplest of innovations has led to the most drastic and effective advances. “Plumpy Nut” has been dubbed as possibly “the most important advance ever” in combatting acute child hunger and has been said to be as important as the discovery of penicillin. The high energy nut-based paste contains basic ingredients including skimmed milk powder, sugar, vegetable fat and various vitamins and minerals. It’s power as a tool against malnutrition lies in the fact that it does not need clean water to swallow, it does not need to be refrigerated or cooked, it stays fresh after opening and, vitally, it can be given to any child in even the most advanced stage of malnutrition, anywhere, by anyone. Indeed, in 2005 during the famine in Niger, Plumpy Nut was given to around 60,000 children suffering from acute malnutrition and 90% recovered completely. Again, during the famine in the Horn of Africa in 2011, Plumpy Nut helped to save the lives of around 240,000 children. Plumpy Nut has the unique ability to turn the balance of a child’s health from a negative curve to almost full recovery
The simplicity of manufacturing this product adds another dimension to Plumpy Nut’s effectiveness. Although originally only produced by one supplier, the patented product is now produced in many developing countries including Sudan, Haiti, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, India, and Niger. Not only does this mean that the product can reach communities and sufferers with far greater ease and speed than if it was only produced in the US, but it also provides invaluable jobs and skills to the communities in which it is produced. UNICEF bought enough of the product this year to feed two million people. This is an incredible amount in itself, especially as it represents a 15-fold increase in the past eight years, the fact that nearly half of that came from African suppliers makes this even more impressive.
The invention of a crusading French paediatrician, Plumpy Nut’s success in Africa could well lead to it becoming the home-grown cure for acute child malnutrition worldwide.