Malnourished Children Need More Gut Bacteria

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DHAKA, Bangladesh — Bacteria and nutrition are not typically associated with one another, but in the case of proper nutrition, the two seemingly different worlds collide. Certain types of gut bacteria actually “play a crucial role in extracting and using nutrients in food,” says the BBC. Malnutrition may cause long-term damage to a child’s ability to absorb nutrients due to a lack of development of essential bacterium.

According to the World Health Organization, “malnutrition is estimated to contribute to more than one-third of all child deaths.” Though many factors contribute to malnutrition for children, the main issue is the fact that nutritious food is often inaccessible. Ready-to-use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) has recently been developed to aid malnourished children. Plumpy’Nut, a peanut-based RUTF, is rich in nutrients and safe to use, as it requires no preparation, which reduces the risk of the food becoming contaminated.

While RUTF’s have certainly been revolutionary in developing countries where malnutrition is rampant, their main function is to help children gain weight. While weight gain is essential for the health of malnourished children, children suffering from extreme malnutrition need more than just additional weight, they need bacteria for future absorption of nutrients.

In a joint study done by the Washington University School of Medicine and the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research outlined by the BBC, researchers found that the malnourished children and healthy children diverged in their development over time. Healthy children had normal gut development while malnourished children initially gained weight when fed nutrient-rich food, but relapsed after treatment ended. These findings suggest that the malnourished children had not developed the essential gut bacterium that would allow them to continuously absorb nutrients.

The study itself, published in Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science, acknowledges that while “therapeutic food interventions have reduced mortality,” the true problem is “incomplete restoration of healthy growth.” The study observed sets of malnourished twins and triplets in Bangladesh and compared them with healthy children. By examining fecal samples, the researchers found that the stools of the malnourished children did not contain the same bacterium as the healthy children, even during the treatment period.

In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Jeffrey I. Gordon from Washington University said, “it takes up to about age 3 for a child to get all the species (of bacteria) that seem to be needed.” This reinforces the findings from the study and adds on the unfortunate fact that if a child is severely malnourished from infancy, the chances of maintaining proper nourishment throughout life are greatly jeopardized. Additionally, chances of a malnourished child making a “full recovery” from consistent nutrition alone are unlikely.

The researchers proposed that longer periods of treatment or “nutritional intervention” could potentially prove helpful. Additionally, improvements in the food itself could produce new results. Another proposition was the concept of performing fecal transplants, during which donor stool is transplanted to a patient during a colonoscopy. However, even with the antibiotics that are routinely used during fecal transplants, the risk of infection is extremely high in Bangladesh.

Sources: BBC, New York Times , Nature, Hopkins Medicine, WHO
Photo: National Geographic

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