Combatting infant malnutrition

March 12, 2024

Malnutrition is caused by an insufficient intake of food or an inadequate absorption of nutrients such as proteins, vitamins and minerals. Infant malnutrition is a problem chiefly in Africa and Asia. “There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the answer might lie in the newborn’s gut flora,” says Duri. She is therefore pinning her hopes on a joint project with the Basel Research Centre for Child Health (BRCCH). Their goal is to improve diagnostic methods of assessing gut flora in infants.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 148 million children under five suffer from developmental delay due to malnutrition and are therefore unlikely to reach their full potential as adults. Malnutrition is caused by an insufficient intake of food or an inadequate absorption of nutrients such as proteins, vitamins and minerals. This, in turn, stunts growth and weakens the immune system. Infant malnutrition is a problem chiefly in Africa and Asia.

In Zimbabwe, decades of political and economic turmoil have had a profound impact on health. Outbreaks of typhus, measles and cholera are common – and children are the worst affected. UNICEF estimates that some 2 million children in Zimbabwe were dependent on humanitarian aid in 2023. “Many of the mothers I work with have access to running water for only three hours a day,” says Kerina Duri, a professor of immunology at the University of Zimbabwe. “And a fifth of these women live on less than one US dollar a day.”

The role of gut flora

Five years ago, Duri established a cohort of 1,200 mother-child dyads and launched a research study that is still ongoing today. The mothers live in densely populated areas of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare. Many of them are infected with AIDS, and malnourishment is common among their children. One of Duri’s main goals is to understand why newborns who are exposed to HIV during pregnancy and the breastfeeding period, yet remain uninfected, are nevertheless at a higher risk of dying young. “There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the answer might lie in the newborn’s gut flora,” says Duri. “If a mother takes antiretroviral medications to suppress AIDS, her baby’s gut flora will be exposed to these drugs during breastfeeding – and that could have a negative impact on the child’s physical, neurocognitive and social development.”

Gut flora, also known as gut microbiota, are the microorganisms that reside in the digestive tract – and Duri notes that Zimbabwe still lags far behind when it comes to research and expertise in this area. She is therefore pinning her hopes on a joint project with the Basel Research Centre for Child Health (BRCCH). Founded by ETH Zurich in collaboration with the University of Basel and charity group Fondation Botnar, the BRCCH aims to develop effective medical interventions for children in the Global South. Since 2020, Duri has been working with colleagues at the University of Bern, the University of Basel and ETH Zurich as part of a project funded by the BRCCH. Their goal is to improve diagnostic methods of assessing gut flora in infants.

The source of this news is from ETH Zurich

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