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Africa Assistance Workers Report Ready-to-Eat Foods Prevent Malnutrition


Many medical aid workers in countries facing nutritional emergencies extol the virtues of ready-to-eat foods. A nutrition specialist for Doctors Without Borders reported such therapeutic foods were used to prevent and treat malnutrition in children during a 2005 food crisis in Niger. Others say the relatively high price of ready-to-eat foods makes their use inefficient, endorsing instead the usual practice of distributing food rations that must be cooked or mixed with water. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA.

At the Blue House Clinic in Nairobi, Judy Muchina and her son collect their supply of a nutritional supplement by the trade name Plumpy Nut.

Three-year-old Charles is HIV-positive and also suffers from tuberculosis. Doctors in the clinic prescribed Plumpy Nut to make Charles stronger and healthier. His mother, Judy, says the food supplement is working. "Initially, Charles weighed 7.3 kilos. Now, after three months of taking Plumpy Nut, he has gained weight and is now 8.5 kilos," she said.

Plumpy Nut is a sweet paste that has the look and texture of peanut butter. Enriched with essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, it can be eaten directly or blended in with food.

Plumpy Nut is one of several therapeutic supplements known as ready-to-eat foods. They do not have to be cooked or mixed with water to be eaten.

The medical aid agency Doctors Without Borders (MSF) distributes containers of Plumpy Nut to more than 60,000 children age 3 and under in communities at risk of malnutrition in Niger.

Dr. Susan Shepherd is the former medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Niger. She says her agency's pilot project in Niger has seen encouraging results. "Moms tell us that their kids are eating better, that they are healthier," she said. "They are having to go to the clinic less often for everyday illness that you see in Niger - pneumonias, colds, diarrhea - that their kids overall are doing much better."

She explains that with the ready-to-eat foods, mothers can be put in complete control of their malnourished children's treatment. Otherwise, many children would have to stay in hospitals up to a month to be fed therapeutic milk products.

It is this success that prompted Doctors Without Borders in mid-October to issue a statement calling for donors, governments, aid agencies and others to more widely distribute ready-to-eat foods.

The agency stated the foods would prevent child malnutrition rather than be restricted only to those already severely malnourished.

Agencies such as the World Food Program provide children with a corn-soya blend (CSB), to prevent and treat moderate malnutrition.

The more traditional food rations, which must be mixed with water, are distributed at feeding centers.

Peter Smerdon is spokesman for the World Food Program in Nairobi, Kenya. He says that it costs 8 euros to treat one severely malnourished child with corn-soya blend as compared to 15 Euros with ready-to-use foods. "It's mainly a question of the funding," he said. "Is the funding there? The World Food Program will feed some 90 million people across the world this year, so we're talking huge numbers if there is a big cost difference to what we are already doing. We need to work out where that balance lies."

Smerdon says World Food Program donors are already stretched to the limit because of rising cereal and fuel costs, making them less likely to fund the relatively expensive ready-to-eat foods.