NEW YORK – On a 60 Minutes episode broadcast in October 2007, Anderson Cooper heralded Plumpy’Nut as possibly “the most important advance ever” in the realm of childhood malnutrition. Six years later, Plumpy’Nut’s effects prove that such a claim was in no way hyperbolic.
Given that a child dies of malnutrition every six seconds, Plumpy’Nut was a direly needed advancement in hunger treatment. According to the World Health Organization, at any moment 20 million children are suffering from the severest form of food deprivation. But unlike the treatments of the past, Plumpy’Nut is a fierce weapon against these horrifying figures.
The product is the brainchild of French pediatrician named André Briend. Briend was part of a band of doctors in the 1990’s that was extremely frustrated and disheartened with the lack of effective treatment for malnutrition. At the time, the typical treatment for acute malnutrition involved administering a watery mixture to patients through tubes in hospitals. However, this 30 year-old practice failed to save 20 percent to 60 percent of patients. After years of trial and error and experiments, Plumpy’Nut was born in 1998.
A paste made of peanut butter, powdered milk, powdered sugar and enriched with vitamins and minerals, Plumpy’Nut is remarkably simple. In food aid terms, it is a “Ready-to-use Therapeutic Food,” which means that it does not require refrigeration, water or cooking. It also has a shelf life of two years.
Plumpy’Nut’s revolution is tied to the fact that it can be administered anywhere by anyone–children who are old enough can feed, and thus treat, themselves. This spares patients and aid agencies huge health care costs they would have otherwise incurred seeking treatment in hospitals or feeding centers. More importantly, though, it also spares extremely weak and vulnerable patients the exposure to deadly pathogens omnipresent in developing world health facilities. That Plumpy’Nut does not require water also spares lives as clean drinking water is often not available or extremely limited.
Plumpy’Nut’s simplicity is matched only by its effectiveness. In about 95 percent of cases, those being treated make a full recovery. Children on the brink of death are brought back to life and treatment can usually be completed within four to six weeks.
Since its first trial use in Niger eight years ago, utilization of Plumpy’Nut in the war against child hunger has exploded. Last year, UNICEF, Plumpy’Nut’s biggest buyer, purchased enough of the product to treat two million children. This is a whopping 15-fold increase over the past eight years.
In 2005, Plumpy’Nut had just one supplier: the French company Nutriset. Now there are 19 UNICEF-approved producers of the peanut paste in countries facing some of the worst malnutrition in the world such as Sudan, Haiti, Ethiopia and India. The product is patented in 38 countries and despite some patent battles in the U.S., its supply has only gone up.
Plumpy’Nut’s continued expansion brings hope to the world’s most vulnerable populations. Most acute child malnutrition occurs in tandem with other disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, violent conflict, and droughts. In a time marked by civil wars in the Middle East, massive natural disasters throughout Southeast Asia, and droughts, violence and severe food insecurity across Africa, Plumpy’Nut’s effects on the treatment of malnutrition make the difference between life and death for literally millions.
– Kelley Calkins