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UNICEF readies for food crisis with unique basket of solutions for children at risk

UNICEF Image: Plumpynut, UNICEF, Africa
© UNICEF Togo/2007/DeMedeiros
A woman in Togo carries a supply of Plumpy'nut to be stored for community use. This leading ready-to-use-therapeutic food is designed to treat severe acute malnutrition in young children.

By Elizabeth Kiem

NEW YORK, USA, 28 May 2008 – Prices of basic foodstuffs are rising across the globe, and with them the spectre of hunger on a massive scale. But where hunger can be battled with less than perfect solutions – as in Haiti, where some people must resort to eating mud cakes – the long-term effect of dietary compromise cannot.

“What happens when food becomes expensive, is that families cut down to two meals or even one meal a day. Then the quality of food is also sacrificed,” said UNICEF’s Senior Advisor on Nutrition, Flora Sibanda Mulder. “Household insecurity, food insecurity will cause acute malnutrition.”

As the world braces for a so-called ‘silent tsunami’ caused by food inflation, UNICEF is prepared to continue fulfilling its mandate of treating the most critical cases – the 20 million children under the age of five suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

Many faces of malnutrition
Regardless of how sharp the current price hikes and how deep the ensuing food shortages, one easily predictable result of the current situation is more acute malnutrition. But malnutrition presents itself in a wide range of severities.

Moderate malnutrition is best treated with high-quality food provided by agencies such as the World Food Organization. During a food crisis, however, these provisions are already spread thin, raising the risk of a deterioration into severe malnutrition.

That’s where UNICEF steps in, with a life-saving basket of therapeutic foods that can be easily administered at home to the most physically wasted babies. Pastes like Plumpy’nut, made of peanut, oil, milk, sugar and micronutrients, have been saving lives on the brink for the past decade – restoring weight and health to millions of severely malnourished babies.

RUTFs – the best weapon to date
Even though the cost of powdered milk, a leading ingredient of ready-to-use therapeutic foods, or RUTFs, doubled over 18 months, UNICEF continues to fulfil its promise to help save lives for just a dollar a day – the cost of a daily ration of RUTF for a severely wasted child.

UNICEF Image: malnutrition, UNICEF, Africa
© UNICEF Togo/2008/Bonnaud
Quick detection of acute malnutrition is critical to saving young lives. For children under age five, an arm circumference less than 110 mm is considered an indication of severe acute malnutrition.

“We are protected from rising production costs because we are the largest procurer of RUTF in the world,” Ms. Mulder said, adding that many producers are experimenting with pastes using more local ingredients and reducing the amount of milk.

“They are using other ingredients such as Soya, and chick peas,” said Ms. Mulder. “It’s the complex minerals and vitamins that are so special about RUTFs. That’s what treats the malnutrition and helps protect the child from any further infections.”

Treating malnutrition at home
Since 1995, UNICEF has advocated a model of community-based management of severe acute malnutrition using RUTF and fortified milk to treat young children in the home. This avoids hospitalization, which is often a burden of time and money for families coping with severely malnourished children.

Last year, UNICEF provided $18 million worth of RUTF in more than 40 countries.

The organization is also soliciting additional funds, working for more integration of hospital and community feeding centres, and providing more supplementary feeding to treat malnutrition before it becomes severe.

As world leaders and aid workers cope with the food crisis, they must assess short- and long-term interventions. But as UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman warned yesterday at an African development summit in Yokohama, Japan, the current food crisis has the potential of reversing important health gains achieved in recent years in some of the world’s poorest countries.




28 May 2008:
UNICEF correspondent Elizabeth Kiem reports on the arsenal of ready-to-use-therapeutic foods to treat the most severe cases of malnutrition.
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