Peanut Paste Saves Starving African Children

It seems underwhelming in its plastic silver package, but Plumpy'nut, the peanut-based therapeutic food paste, is more than enough for hundreds of thousands of malnourished children.

Plumpy'nut, generically known as ready to use therapeutic food, or RUTF, is the invention of André Briend, a French pediatric nutritionist currently working with the World Health Organization.

For years, powdered milk laden with vitamins had been a solution to malnutrition. But preparing the milk required hygienic environments and refrigeration, which usually necessitated inpatient treatment, and was costly and time consuming.

Teaming with Michael Golden, an Irish nutritionist, Briend, who then worked for Action Against Hunger, sought to create a take-home, spoil-proof, preparation-free food to treat malnutrition.. In 1999, Plumpy'nut, a thick, edible, pastelike substance containing peanuts, vegetable oil, milk powder, vitamins and minerals, was created.

Each packet -- roughly the size of a cereal bar -- contains 500 calories of perfectly proportioned proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Two packets a day for two weeks are enough to nourish and rehabilitate a starving child.

Plumpy'nut Goes to Africa

Though the product was created almost seven years ago, it became widely used only in 2005 when the relief group Doctors Without Borders introduced it in Africa.

"It went a bit slowly," said Milton Tectonidis, a Doctors Without Borders special nutritionist. "They first came up with the product as an alternative to milk, tested it on inpatients, ran a number of trials ... and found the results were excellent."

By 2003, the group started giving Plumpy'nut to outpatients, said Tectonidis. "We worked with other NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] to test it out. In each case, it treated 1,000 or 2,000 patients, and we took inspiration from them. When we came out with it in 2005, we treated 60,000 in four months."

Since then, several hundred thousand malnourished children have been rehabilitated with Plumpy'nut, which is handed out in weeklong supplies -- a total of 14 packets -- to the mothers of starving children.

Perhaps more important than the number of children who've been helped by the peanut paste are the resources it has freed up in a resource-scarce environment.

"If you calculate the cost with all the staff and the water and the electric and the hygienic processing and construction," said Tectonidis, "it comes out as much more to treat inpatient than out-patient."

Instead, precious medical attention and relief resources can be devoted to the critically ill or those wounded in war.

Problems With Peanuts: Allergies in Africa

While widespread distribution of a peanut-based product like Plumpy'nut could pose a danger to allergy-prone children in the United States, that is not a concern on the African continent.

"Food allergy seems far less common in poor countries than in rich countries," said Briend. "This well-known observation has been explained by different factors, but apparently, crowding and repeated exposure to infections seem to play a role."

The dearth of allergies and asthma in developing nations, and the rapid growth of these ailments in industrialized countries (registered peanut allergies in the United States doubled from 1997-2002), is largely attributed to the hygiene hypothesis, a topic addressed in an April 2002 article in Science magazine called "Allergy, Parasites and the Hygiene Hypothesis."

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