Stopping child malnourishment at the roots

“No matter where a woman is pregnant or a baby is born, those individuals deserve the best chance at reaching their full potential.” -Dr. Hendrixson



Every year around the world, 20 million children (about the population of New York) suffer from malnutrition. Of these 20 million, about three million die, with malnutrition being the contributing factor. Pregnant mothers often suffer from undernutrition in poorer countries, leading to unhealthier babies and the beginning of child malnourishment.


In 2017, a study in Pujehun, Sierra Leone, was conducted to determine successful prevention methods of child malnutrition by treating undernourished pregnant mothers. The three-year controlled clinical trial consisted of 1,489 women who were divided into two groups by random selection.


Mothers in group one were fed ready-to-use supplementary food (RUSF) while also receiving anti-infective therapies throughout the term of their pregnancies. Mothers in group two received a standard of care with no additional supplements.


The most prominent differences between these two groups at the end of the trial were the conditions of the newborn babies. Those born to the mothers that received RUSF consistently throughout their pregnancies had a higher chance of survival during the neonatal period. They were also longer and weighed more than the babies born to the women who received the limited standard care.


While the RUSF successfully produced healthier infants with a lower likelihood of suffering from malnourishment, the study was unable to identify the effects that this could have on premature deliveries.


Dr. David Taylor Hendrixson, a physician specializing in pediatrics, infectious disease, and neonatal medicine, was one of the primary investigators for the study.


"Prematurity is a huge problem worldwide and a huge cause of neonatal deaths worldwide. Targeting that is really important, and both Mark and I have hopes to do that in the future using a similar kind of intervention,” Dr. Hendrixson said. “Gathering more data on the gestational age of the fetuses and the pregnancies would be really important and something that we are both very interested in.”


Most mothers in sub-Saharan Africa live in poorer conditions and don’t have access to a variety of nutritional foods. Nutritional education in these regions is also quite limited, and most are unaware of what is happening to their bodies when they do not receive the nutrients they need.


“Seeing young mothers come in that are very resource-limited and very poor and being able to empower them and give them confidence and knowledge as they enter into motherhood, I think is a really great thing. It is something that we were able to achieve throughout this time period,” Dr. Hendrixson said.


Optimizing nutritional products and preventing infections/inflammation during pregnancy is vital for the baby’s health and survival. This study was a turning point in the world of medicine, and doctors like Hendrixson are seeing a promising future for women and children in sub-Saharan Africa.


“We are actively working on developing a new trial that further refines these things and builds off the information that we gathered in this trial. [It would] still [be] with a huge focus around antenatal nutrition and optimizing nutrition because that is so important to pregnancy and growth of the infants,” Dr. Hendrixson said. “Everything works together and thinking about it as a whole and approaching it in that way is really how we will move this forward.”

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