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)
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)
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

Afghanistan, Pakistan Leaders to Hold Icebreaking Talks in Paris

Two sides are expected to discuss ways to ease bilateral tensions and jointly work for resumption of stalled peace talks between Afghan government and Taliban officials

Corruption Busting Is Her Game

South African activist is building 'international online community of thousands of corruption fighters'

Former SAF Businessman Gives Books, Love of Reading to Students

Steve Tsakaris now involved in nonprofit Read to Rise, which distributes books in Soweto, encourages lower-grade primary school students to read

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs