Lieven Huybregts and colleagues investigate how supplementing a general food distribution with a fortified lipid-based spread during a seasonal hunger gap in Chad affects anthropometric and morbidity outcomes for children aged 6 to 36 months.
Recently, operational organizations active in child nutrition in developing countries have suggested that blanket feeding strategies be adopted to enable the prevention of child wasting. A new range of nutritional supplements is now available, with claims that they can prevent wasting in populations at risk of periodic food shortages. Evidence is lacking as to the effectiveness of such preventive interventions. This study examined the effect of a ready-to-use supplementary food (RUSF) on the prevention of wasting in 6- to 36-mo-old children within the framework of a general food distribution program.
Methods and Findings
We conducted a two-arm cluster-randomized controlled pragmatic intervention study in a sample of 1,038 children aged 6 to 36 mo in the city of Abeche, Chad. Both arms were included in a general food distribution program providing staple foods. The intervention group was given a daily 46 g of RUSF for 4 mo. Anthropometric measurements and morbidity were recorded monthly. Adding RUSF to a package of monthly household food rations for households containing a child assigned to the intervention group did not result in a reduction in cumulative incidence of wasting (incidence risk ratio: 0.86; 95% CI: 0.67, 1.11; p = 0.25). However, the intervention group had a modestly higher gain in height-for-age (+0.03 Z-score/mo; 95% CI: 0.01, 0.04; p<0.001). In addition, children in the intervention group had a significantly higher hemoglobin concentration at the end of the study than children in the control group (+3.8 g/l; 95% CI: 0.6, 7.0; p = 0.02), thereby reducing the odds of anemia (odds ratio: 0.52; 95% CI: 0.34, 0.82; p = 0.004). Adding RUSF also resulted in a significantly lower risk of self-reported diarrhea (−29.3%; 95% CI: 20.5, 37.2; p<0.001) and fever episodes (−22.5%; 95% CI: 14.0, 30.2; p<0.001). Limitations of this study include that the projected sample size was not fully attained and that significantly fewer children from the control group were present at follow-up sessions.
Providing RUSF as part of a general food distribution resulted in improvements in hemoglobin status and small improvements in linear growth, accompanied by an apparent reduction in morbidity.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary.
Good nutrition during childhood is essential for health and survival. Undernourished children are more susceptible to infections and are more likely to die from common ailments such as diarrhea than well-nourished children. Globally, undernutrition contributes to about a third of deaths among children under five years old. Experts use three physical measurements to determine whether a child is undernourished. An “underweight” child has a low weight for his or her age and gender when compared to the World Health Organization Child Growth Standards, which chart the growth of a reference population. A “stunted” child has a low height for his or her age; stunting indicates chronic undernutrition. A “wasted” child has a low weight for his or her height; wasting indicates acute undernutrition and can be caused by disasters or seasonal food shortages. Recent estimates indicate that about a fifth of young children in developing countries are underweight, and one third are stunted; in south Asia and west/central Africa, more than one tenth of children are wasted, a condition that markedly increases the risk of death.
Why Was This Study Done?
In emergency situations, international organizations support affected populations by providing “general food distributions.” Recently, there have been claims that the provision of targeted nutritional supplements within a general food distribution framework effectively prevents child wasting, but there is little evidence to support these claims. In this cluster-randomized controlled trial, the researchers investigate the effect of a targeted daily dose of a “ready-to-use supplementary food” (RUSF; a lipid-based nutrient supplement) on indicators of undernutrition in 6- to 36-month-old, non-wasted children in Chad, a country beset by a severe food crisis. Political instability in this central African country has severely reduced the nutritional status of children, and annual droughts, which affect crop production, cause a “hunger gap” between June and October. In a recent survey, one fifth of children in Chad were wasted at the beginning of this hunger gap. A cluster-randomized trial randomly assigns groups of people to receive alternative interventions and compares the outcomes in the differently treated “clusters.”
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers randomly assigned fourteen household clusters in the city of Abeche, Chad, to the trial's intervention or control arm. All the households received a general food distribution that included staple foods; eligible children in the intervention households were also given a daily RUSF ration between June and September 2010. The researchers regularly measured the children's weights and heights, recorded illnesses reported by caregivers, and measured each child's blood hemoglobin level before and after the intervention to assess their risk of anemia, an indicator of poor nutrition. The addition of RUSF to the household food rations did not significantly reduce the cumulative incidence of wasting. That is, although fewer children in the intervention group became wasted during the trial than in the control group, this difference was not statistically significant—it could have happened by chance. However, compared to the children in the control group, those in the intervention group had a significantly greater gain in height-for-age (equivalent to a difference in height gain of 0.09 cm/month), slightly higher hemoglobin levels at the end of the study, which significantly reduced their anemia risk, and a significantly lower risk of self-reported diarrhea and fever.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Although targeted RUSF provided as part of a general food distribution had no significant effect on wasting in young children in Abeche, Chad, the intervention improved their hemoglobin status and linear growth, and reduced illness among them. Why didn't targeted RUSF prevent wasting effectively in this trial? Maybe the effect of RUSF was diluted out by the effect of the general food distribution or maybe the trial was too short to see a clear effect. Most importantly, though, the trial may have been too small to see a clear effect—the researchers were unable to enroll as many children into their trial as they had planned because of political instability in Chad, and this probably limited the trial's ability to detect small differences between the control and intervention groups. Nevertheless, because these findings provide no clear evidence that adding RUSF to a household food ration effectively prevents wasting, alternative ways to prevent acute malnutrition in Chad and other vulnerable regions of the world should be investigated.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001313.
This study is further discussed in a PLOS Medicine
Perspective by Kathryn Dewey and Mary Arimond
Action Contra la Faim–France has a web page that describes the situation in Chad
The United Nations Childrens Fund, which protects the rights of children and young people around the world, provides detailed statistics on child undernutrition; it has detailed information, including videos, about the current food crisis in Chad and the Sahel
The WHO Child Growth Standards are available (in several languages)
The United Nations provides information on ongoing world efforts to reduce hunger and child mortality
The World Food Programme is the world's largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide; its website provides detailed information about malnutrition in Chad, including a video of the current food crisis in the country
Starved for Attention is an international multimedia campaign launched in 2010 by Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF) and the VII Photo agency to rewrite the story of childhood malnutrition; information about MSFs work in Chad to tackle malnutrition is available