News / Health

Antibiotics Help Fight Severe Malnutrition

A starving child is covered with flies at the pediatric malnutrition ward at the Lilongwe Central Hospital, Malawi. (file photo)A starving child is covered with flies at the pediatric malnutrition ward at the Lilongwe Central Hospital, Malawi. (file photo)
x
A starving child is covered with flies at the pediatric malnutrition ward at the Lilongwe Central Hospital, Malawi. (file photo)
A starving child is covered with flies at the pediatric malnutrition ward at the Lilongwe Central Hospital, Malawi. (file photo)
TEXT SIZE - +
Severely malnourished children are more likely to survive if they receive antibiotics in addition to therapeutic feeding, according to a new study.

In the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a week’s worth of common antibiotics reduced the death rate among severely malnourished children by 35 percent or more.

About 20 million children worldwide are severely malnourished, and malnutrition is a factor in the death of about 1 million every year. So the results are a big deal, says lead author Indi Trehan, a pediatrician at Washington University.

“If you can cut the death rate by 35 percent for any disease, that’s a huge finding," said Trehan. "And if you can do it with a $3 antibiotic, that’s an even bigger finding. And if you can do it with a $3 antibiotic and a disease that kills a million kids a year, 35 percent less deaths - that’s why we’re having this conversation today.”

Malnutrition stunts a child’s physical and mental development. It also affects their defense against diseases of all kinds, from pneumonia to malaria to measles. Trehan says that can be the difference between life and death.

“You can easily go into a village in the middle of a measles outbreak and hand-pick which ones are going to die," he said. "You can tell what’s going to happen based on how scrawny they are.”

Until a few years ago, those scrawny kids would have needed to be hospitalized to treat their malnutrition. And still, as many as half of them would die.

But with advances in ready-to-use therapeutic foods like Plumpy’Nut, a nutrient-fortified paste of peanuts and milk powder, these kids can be sent home and 85 to 90 percent of them recover fully. It’s a huge advance, Trehan says.

“But if 10 or 15 percent still don’t recover, and if 5 or 10 percent die, in a disease that hits 20 million kids a year, that 5 or 10 percent is still an outrageously large number that we can’t be happy with," said Trehan.

The Washington University pediatrician and his colleagues wondered if they could cut the number of deaths by sending malnourished kids home with antibiotics as well as nutrient-fortified therapeutic food.

Public health authorities have recommended antibiotic treatment for malnutrition for several years. But there has been no solid medical evidence for its benefits. And indiscriminate use of antibiotics carries a risk of side effects, including antibiotic resistance. Plus, there’s the added cost. So Indi Trehan’s group in Malawi had not prescribed them before.

But he says the new results quickly changed their minds.

“We were extremely shocked," he said. "I remember the night when we started looking at the data, and I had to call up the lead investigator, Mark Manary, and I said, ‘Can you believe this? This is actually happening.’”

“We were suspecting that this might be the case. However, we did not have any proof," said Myrto Schaefer.

Pediatrician Myrto Schaefer, with the relief organization Doctors Without Borders, says the group has been giving antibiotics to malnourished children anyway. But this is the first study to provide solid evidence for the practice.

“However, what we don’t know is whether the results of this study can be easily transferred to the areas where the majority of children with severe malnutrition live," said Schaefer.

Schaefer says severe malnutrition is most serious in the Sahel region of Africa. But malnourished kids there do not show the same symptoms as those in Malawi, where this study was done. That suggests the underlying causes are different, and go beyond just the lack of food.

In fact, Trehan is co-author on an accompanying study that suggests the types of microbes living in the Malawian children’s gastro-intestinal tracts may be contributing to their malnutrition.

“You could give them the right diet, but if the right bugs aren’t there to help liberate your zinc, or your vitamin A or your proteins, then you’re not going to really absorb them and use them for growth. And you’re going to get malnourished," he said.

Trehan acknowledges it's not really clear why the antibiotics are having the effect they are. He says that’s what he plans to spend the next several years studying.

You May Like

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

John the XXIII and John Paul II will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square on April 27 More

Thailand Reacts to Plots Targeting Israelis

Authorities hope arrest of two Lebanese suspects will disrupt plot to attack young Israeli tourists More

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

'Once Upon a Forest' takes viewers deep into heart of tropical rainforest More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Churchi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X
Jerome Socolovsky
April 22, 2014 4:14 PM
On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Robotic Mission Kicks Up Lunar Dust

A robotic mission to the moon was deliberately crashed onto the lunar surface late last week, but not before scientists had collected data gathered by the spacecraft which was designed to self-destruct. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports on the preliminary findings of the craft, called LADEE - an acronym for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer.
Video

Video Boko Haram Claims Responsibility for Bombing in Nigerian Capital

The Nigerian militant group known as Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for a bombing in the capital on April 14th that killed 75 people. In the video message, Abubakar Shekau, the man who says he ordered the bombing, says nothing about the mass abduction of more than 100 teenage girls, most of whom are still missing. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Abuja.
Video

Video Ukraine Developments Hang Over Obama Trip to Asia

President Barack Obama's trip to Asia this week comes as concerns over Beijing's territorial ambitions are growing in the region. Those concerns have been compounded by Russia's recent actions in Ukraine and the possibility that Chinese strategists might be looking to Crimea as a model for its territorial disputes with its neighbors. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid