Diarrhea is a leading cause of malnutrition in children under five years old, and children who are malnourished are more vulnerable to diarrheal disease. Proper infant and young child nutrition fortifies the immune system against infectious diseases like diarrhea and promotes healthy long-term growth and development.
Each diarrheal episode worsens malnutrition. This relentless cycle can often be fatal. When lives are spared, chronic malnutrition continues to threaten a child’s cognitive and physical development, education, and future productivity.1
Repeated diarrhea infections contribute to long-term gut damage that prevents nutrient absorption and immune system function, even when children eat healthy foods.2 Integrating nutrition programming within additional interventions to prevent and treat diarrheal disease – including WASH and vaccines – is the only way to comprehensively address the vicious cycle of diarrhea and malnutrition.
Nutritional interventions such as optimal infant and young child feeding are pivotal in preventing malnutrition, measured by low weight and height for age, and low weight for height. These interventions include exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months, then continued breastfeeding and nutritious, hygienically-prepared complementary foods during the 6 to 24 month period. Feeding should continue during an episode of diarrhea, and feeding should increase after the episode to help counteract weight loss and malnutrition.
The vitamins and nutrients in breastmilk and complementary foods are essential to fighting infections caused by diarrheal diseases as well as other pathogens, contributing to the development of important antibodies and boosting children’s immune systems.
In addition to developing new technologies such as Ultra Rice®, PATH works with global health colleagues and communities around the world to promote inexpensive, integrated nutrition interventions aimed at making sure pregnant mothers and babies get the nutrients they need.
1 Series on Maternal and Child Undernutrition. Lancet. 2008. Available at: http://www.thelancet.com/series/maternal-and-child-undernutrition. Accessed February 19, 2013.
2 Korpe PS, Petri WA. Environmental Enteropathy: Critical implications of a poorly understood condition. Trends in Molecular Medicine. 2012;18(6):328-336.
Photo: PATH/Salvir Malhotra.
Ultra Rice is a registered trademark of Bon Dente International, Inc., in the United States.