WASHINGTON: Adding a low-cost antibiotic to dietary treatments could help save many children with acute malnutrition, according to new research out Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers from the Washington University in Saint Louis medical school followed the treatment of more than 2,700 Malawian children, six months to five years old, all diagnosed with severe malnutrition.
The children were all given a regimen of a peanut-based nutrient-dense food supplement, standard procedure in impoverished countries like Malawi.
But the children were also randomly assigned to receive a seven-day course of one of two antibiotics – amoxicillin or cefdinir – or just a placebo.
Neither the researchers nor the families knew which pills the child was taking.
The treatment was effective for most of the children, regardless of whether an antibiotic was given – more than 85 per cent of the children recovered, in all three groups.
But among the children treated with either antibiotic, the success rate was noticeably higher.
Put another way, the rate of treatment failure fell by nearly a quarter with amoxicillin and by nearly 40 per cent with cefdinir, compared to the group that took the placebo.
The mortality rate also dropped in the group that received antibiotics: by more than a third with amoxicillin, and by nearly 45 per cent with cefdinir.
The results of this clinical trial could change the way doctors treat malnutrition, the researchers told The New York Times.
Because of the study, the World Health Organization plans to recommend a broader use of antibiotics in its outpatient malnutrition treatment guidelines planned for release next month, they added.
Another study, published Wednesday in the US journal Science, showed that insufficient – or insufficiently nutritious – diets may not be the only reason some children develop severe malnutrition.
This study, also by Washington University researchers in Malawi, suggested that differences in the microbes found in the intestines contribute to why some children suffer more acutely from hunger than others.
The researchers came to this conclusion by observing nearly 400 sets of twins over their first three years of life, focusing especially on cases where one twin – but not the other – developed a form of malnutrition called kwashiorkor, associated with swollen bellies, liver damage, skin ulcerations and loss of appetite, in addition to wasting.
According to UNICEF, a person dies of starvation every 3.6 seconds, and most of the deaths are among children under five.
“Some 300 million children go to bed hungry every day. Of these only eight percent are victims of famine or other emergency situations. More than 90 per cent are suffering long-term malnourishment and micronutrient deficiency,” the UN agency says on its website.