Nutritional supplements lower child mortality

The father of a one-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo with severe malnutrition feeds her ready-to-use therapeutic food. (Credit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

When children receive nutritional supplements rich in vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids, mortality drops significantly, researchers report.

More than half of child deaths worldwide stem from preventable causes, such as adverse effects from malnutrition.

The new study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, shows that supplements may decrease mortality among children 6-24 months old by as much as 27% in low- and middle-income countries.

Child’s daily diet

Nutrient supplements typically consist of a mixture of a legume—peanut, lentil, or chickpea paste—plus milk powder, oil, and a full complement of the vitamins and minerals children need.

“Supplements could have effects beyond just preventing stunting, wasting, and malnutrition.”

“Picture a tiny package of fortified peanut butter that only has 100 calories,” says Christine Stewart, an associate professor in the nutrition department at the University of California, Davis, and interim director of the Institute for Global Nutrition. “It’s enough to spread on a single piece of bread or it can be mixed with other foods.”

The packets are designed to be added to a child’s daily diet as they transition from breastfeeding to complementary foods or family foods.

The packets are small enough to fit in the palm of a hand easily
Christine Stewart holds packets of nutrient supplements. (Credit: Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Previous studies have examined how supplements given to young children improve growth, but researchers say this is the first to evaluate the impact of the supplements on childhood deaths.

“The results show supplements could have effects beyond just preventing stunting, wasting, and malnutrition,” Stewart says.

One death prevented

To assess mortality risk among children who received the supplements compared to those who did not, the researchers identified 18 trials conducted in 11 countries. Among those, their primary analysis used data from 13 trials including 34,051 children. Researchers conducted the trials in multiple countries in different geographic regions and they are likely generalizable to other low- and middle-income countries.

“From these data, we estimate that for every 227 children who receive the supplements for at least six months, one child death can be prevented,” Stewart says. “Malnutrition is an underlying cause of child mortality. This study really reiterates that.”

The common causes of death are illnesses like diarrhea and respiratory infection. “These diseases are rarely fatal in places like the United States because the children are well nourished,” Stewart says.

Coauthor Kathryn Dewey, professor emerita in the nutrition department, developed the use of small-quantity lipid-based nutrient supplements along with other colleagues. “It is encouraging to see that this intervention can reduce deaths after the age of 6 months, as there are few effective strategies beyond that age,” she says.

Additional authors are from UC Davis; Tampere University, Finland; Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health funded the work.

Source: UC Davis