Médecins Sans Frontières has called for a radical shift in the way child malnutrition is treated across the world, saying therapeutic ready-to-use foods (RUF), such as Plumpy’nut, should be supplied much more extensively than is the case now.
Plumpy’nut is one of several brands of nutrient-rich pastes made from peanut and milk that are used to treat children with severe acute malnutrition, estimated to number 20 million worldwide.
According to MSF, only 3 percent of these children will have received RUF in 2007.
Lesser forms of malnutrition in children tend to be treated with fortified blended food.
"We are calling for political commitment [from ministries of health and donors] and more research that will facilitate the move from fortified blended food towards RUF," Dr Christophe Fournier, the president of MSF's International Council, said at a news conference in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
"It's not about how much food children get, it's what’s in the food that counts," he added.
"Without the right amounts of vitamins and essential nutrients in their diets, young children become vulnerable to diseases that they would normally be able to fight off easily,” he said.
"Given their effectiveness, the use of RUF should not be limited to children with severe acute malnutrition," MSF said in a briefing document. "It should be expanded to address malnutrition in young children before it progresses to a life-threatening stage.”
In a pilot programme in Niger, MSF is giving RUF to 62,000 children younger than three in at-risk communities as a way of supplying crucial nutrients.
“Instead of waiting for kids to get gravely ill, we decided to act earlier," Susan Shepherd, the MSF head of mission in Niger, told reporters.
She said initial results showed that RUF was significantly more effective than the traditional blend of fortified flours and cooking oil.
"The fact that there is no need to prepare a porridge means that with RUF, there is no need to add water, which eliminates the risk of contamination," MSF stated.
"RUF's packaging also allows it to be stored for significant periods of time without spoiling, even in hot or humid climates. Fortified blended food, on the other hand, requires water and preparation time for cooking, has the risk of under- and over-dosing, has a limited shelf-life and is easily spoiled or infested."
MSF also supplies RUF to malnourished adolescents, pregnant or lactating mothers, the elderly and the chronically ill, including those with HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis and would like to see other agencies and governments follow suit.
The agency also urged researchers, producers and users of RUF to work together to develop new products, "adapted for use in the early treatment and prevention of child malnutrition, but also, for other uses, such as maternal nutrition to prevent low birth weight".