This week, I’ve been attending a UNICEF conference in Paris on the fight against childhood malnutrition. At present, 2.6 million children die of malnutrition every year; we want to drastically reduce that number and stop the cycle of poverty that sees malnourished children who do survive grow into stunted adults unable to fulfil their potential.
It’s an important year for this topic, with a number of efforts – international conferences, political gatherings and summits, including a conference on Nutrition for Growth in London in June, linked to the UK’s hosting of the G8 – aimed at making a real difference.
Environmental enteropathy (EE)
I’ve previously blogged about EU efforts to address nutrition but in Paris this week, research was presented that gave those fighting malnutrition and stunting food for thought. The subject was environmental enteropathy (EE).
EE is a chronic condition of the gut that changes the surface of the intestinal lining. These changes reduce the ability of the body to absorb nutrients; they also affect the immune system, which saps additional energy from the body.
The importance of good hygiene
Since EE (which used to be known as tropical enteropathy) results from constant exposure to faecal bacteria, it’s a hygiene issue: it is not actually something that changes to nutrition can fix. What this means is that, in the fight against malnutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene interventions – especially those targeting infants – look set to become far more significant than they have been so far.
While there are existing published studies explaining how EE may affect nutritional status and broader health, the in-depth study presented in Paris by Professor Jean Humphreys of the Zvitambo Institute in Zimbabwe, in collaboration with John Hopkins University in the US, is still at an early stage and the final results are some way off.
However, it is already clear that new and effective policies to combat EE must be developed and implemented if we are to truly tackle malnutrition and its long-term impacts on children.