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Humanitarian Group Appeals for Support of Ready-to-Use Food for Malnourished Children

The international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders says it is launching a worldwide appeal aimed at getting donors and governments to support a campaign to provide ready-to-use food to malnourished children. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

Every year, more than five million children under age five die of nutrition-related causes. Doctors Without Borders says these annual deaths could be reduced by giving malnourished children ready-to-use food containing vitamins and essential nutrients.

It says this approach is far more effective and practical than the traditional method, which uses fortified blended flour and requires that severely malnourished children be fed under close supervision at a feeding center.

Executive Director of the Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, Tido von Schoen-Angerer, tells VOA the new approach requires no preparation and allows the mother to keep the child at home.

"You can store it easily. It is not heat-sensitive. You do not need to cook or add water. The child can just eat it directly and it is tasty," he said. "For the severely malnourished children, normally we would need to hospitalize all of them and that is not any longer necessary. So, the woman can take it home. It has enormous advantages in places where there is conflict, but it is of benefit everywhere and it really allows even when you do not have enough medical staff and bring it to the homes of people."

Dr. Schoen-Angerer says ready-to-use food is practical in non-secure places like Somalia. He says it is a very effective way to treat malnourished children caught in a dangerous, difficult situation.

The world's so-called malnutrition hotspots are found in large areas of the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and South Asia.

The World Health Organization estimates 20 million young children are suffering from acute malnutrition at any given moment. Doctors Without Borders estimates only three percent of these children will receive ready-to-use food in 2007.

Dr. Schoen-Angerer says Doctors Without Borders has a pilot project in Niger, which shows that giving mildly malnourished children ready-to-use food at an early stage can prevent them from becoming acutely malnourished.

"What we are doing in Niger this year is that we are giving supplements with this kind of food where the child has to take three teaspoons a day to give it to all the children under three during that particular hunger season," he added. "And, what we already saw last year is by expanding this ready-to-use food, we were ready to prevent the severe malnutrition. So, we really see this as working and we need others to do the same."

Doctors Without Borders has been treating malnutrition with therapeutic ready-to-use food since the late 1990s. But, Dr. Schoen-Angerer says it was only this June that U.N. agencies were finally persuaded of its effectiveness.

He says the aim of the global campaign is to persuade international donors to provide the money needed to support the program.