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Each year, 3.5 million mothers and young children die from malnutrition, a preventable condition. On October 21, experts from the US government and global health organizations led a briefing for colleagues in Washington, DC, to describe global efforts to reduce malnutrition and improve health for women and children.

Asma Lateef, director of the Bread for the World Institute and the moderator of the discussion, said that the debilitating effects of malnutrition during the first 1,000 days of poor nutrition can last a lifetime. She also noted that malnutrition can be prevented and treated. Bread for the World, which provides a collective Christian voice urging US decision-makers to end hunger at home and abroad, is part of the global 1,000 Days initiative, which supports international experts and advocates working to improve early nutrition.

Cindy Huang, senior advisor of the Feed the Future initiative at the US Department of State, also highlighted the importance of addressing the first 1,000 days of malnutrition. “Improving nutrition in these 1,000 days leads to immediate gains in mortality and morbidity reduction and lifelong gains in education, poverty reduction, and economic growth,” Huang said. Improving nutrition requires a multisectoral approach, including agriculture, social behavior, social protection, and health, she noted.

The Feed the Future Initiative, which aims to sustainably reduce global poverty and hunger, addresses malnutrition by making the right foods available, including supporting growth in the agriculture sector, making food accessible through improved market access and trade, and making sure that good food is consumed through projects and policies that support good nutrition.

Interventions that boost nutrition

Dr. Bruce Cogill, nutrition division chief in the Bureau for Global Health at the US Agency for International Development (USAID), said that the nutrition goals of Feed the Future and USAID's Global Health Initiative are the same: to reduce child under-nutrition by 30 percent across countries where access to food is at risk. Nutrition is important in and of itself and also because it is at the center of other health and economic outcomes, Dr. Cogill explained. A 2008 article series in The Lancet about maternal and child under-nutrition “told us what” we need to do about nutrition, Dr. Cogill said, but implementing organizations and others “need to tell us how.” Through USAID’s Infant and Young Child Nutrition (IYCN) Project and other partnerships, the agency supports and implements country-led plans to improve nutrition.

Dr. Ciro Franco, country lead and global technical lead for maternal, newborn, and child health at Management Sciences for Health (MSH), described nutrition interventions that MSH implemented through the USAID Basic Support for Institutionalizing Child Survival (BASICS) project in Malawi and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, for example, BASICS trained community health workers on a package of child health and nutrition interventions and assisted the Ministry of Health in the development of a national manual, Integrated Community Case Management. MSH is a nonprofit international health organization that works to close the gap between knowledge and action in public health.

The role of agriculture

Dr. Thomas Schaetzel, technical director of the IYCN Project based at PATH, explained that agricultural production gains are important but do not necessarily translate into improved nutrition outcomes. Whether crops are food crops or cash crops, whether the food crops are nutritious and accessible to the poor, and the effect of all of these factors on food prices can all make a difference.

“We want to do good, because we’re do-gooders,” Dr. Schaetzel said, “but at least we should try to do no harm.” To achieve the greatest nutritional impact from agricultural interventions, or just to make sure that agriculture programs do not have negative outcomes on nutrition, attention should be paid to at-risk groups from the earliest planning stages. To assist this process, IYCN is developing a nutritional impact assessment tool that helps agricultural program planners evaluate the impact that alternative approaches will have on at-risk groups, such as young children, pregnant women, and girls aged 15 to 44.

IYCN is USAID’s flagship project in infant and young child nutrition, led by PATH and implemented in partnership with CARE, the Manoff Group, and University Research Co., LLC.

About the series

This event was the fifth and final briefing in the series “New and innovative approaches to maternal and child health,” cohosted by the Global Health Council, PATH, and MSH. Bread for the World joined as a co-host for this event.

More information

Posted November 5, 2010.