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Designing interventions to achieve impact

Student Blogger for Global Nutrition Council at ASN’s Scientific Sessions and Annual Meeting at EB 2016

By: Sheela Sinharoy, MPH

A symposium titled Program Effectiveness for Addressing Undernutrition during the First 1,000 Days provided attendees with examples of programs in Bangladesh, Guatemala, and Burundi.

In Bangladesh, the Rang-Din Nutrition Study tested lipid-based nutrient supplements (LNS) in a community-based program. According to presenter Kay Dewey, the study found that giving LNS to mothers prenatally reduced the prevalence of stunting and increased the birth weight, head circumference, and body mass index (BMI) in infants at birth. LNS and multiple micronutrient powders (MNP) for children were also associated with better developmental and cognitive outcomes. Dr. Dewey noted that the impact on child anthropometry was much larger in food insecure households, so future programs may want to target based on this and other criteria.

Moving from Asia to Africa, Marie Ruel presented results from an impact evaluation of a food-assisted integrated health and nutrition program in Burundi. The program gave food rations to mothers and children and also provided behavior change communication. Interestingly, the nutrition situation in Burundi deteriorated sharply during the program period, but decreases were less severe in the treatment groups. For example, while the prevalence of stunting increased dramatically in the control group, the prevalence in the treatment group remained essentially flat. Thus, although the treatment group did not improve, the results suggest that the intervention protected families who otherwise would have been vulnerable to economic shocks.

Guatemala is another country with a very high prevalence of chronic undernutrition, and Deanna Olney presented results from a study of a similar food assistance program. The impact of the program was greatest among those who received a full family food ration plus an individual ration of corn-soy blend. In these households, mothers had significantly higher mean BMIs, children had a lower prevalence of stunting, and both mothers and children had a lower prevalence of anemia. However, there were no significant impacts on child underweight, wasting, or language or motor development.

The differing impacts of various programs was the impetus for a talk by Per Ashorn, who discussed pathways of impact for fetal growth, linear growth, and cognitive function. He explained that the pathways for linear, ponderal, and head growth are partially different, and there are possibly partially different pathways to childhood length gain and brain function. This suggests a need for multipronged interventions targeting pathways including infection, nutrition, and inflammation, as well as a variety of outcome measures to assess the interventions’ impact.

Of course, cost is an important – and often challenging – issue when planning interventions. The final talk of the symposium was given by Steve Vosti, who explained that programs must balance need, acceptability, use, and both short-term and persistent demand in order to achieve impact. These and many other factors, such as the costs of manufacturing supplements in country and the proportion of locally available ingredients being used, can affect the cost of an intervention. In addition to deciding on the most appropriate intervention to meet a need, practitioners must take these factors into account when planning their programs.

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The Folate Fortification Story – How we fixed one problem…but may have created another

By: Mary Scourboutakos

Neural tube defects are a type of birth defect—affecting the brain, spine or spinal cord—that result from suboptimal folate status.
Folate is a B vitamin that’s naturally found in legumes (like chickpeas, lentils, pinto and kidney beans), seeds, leafy greens (like spinach, collard greens and romaine lettuce) and other vegetables such as asparagus, brussels sprouts and broccoli.

The problem is, people don’t eat enough of these foods. As a result, for many years, pregnant women were at risk for folate deficiency and hence, neural tube defects.

Prenatal supplements were the original solution to this problem as one of their prime ingredients is folic acid, the synthetic form of folate. However, they’re not a fool proof solution because neural tube defects form within four weeks of conception, often before women know they’re pregnant, and thus, before they start taking their supplements.

As a result, in the late 1990s folic acid was mandatorily added to white flour and enriched grain products to ensure that pregnant women would get enough folate, irrespective of whether they take a supplement.

Problem solved? Sort of…

Back in the early 1990s when discussions regarding the addition of folic acid to the food supply were taking place, it was suggested that after fortification was implemented, the dose of folic acid in prenatal supplements should be revised to prevent excessive intakes. The new problem is…the doses were never revised.

Currently, marketed prenatal supplements usually contain 1000 micrograms of folic acid, which is the daily upper limit for folic acid. Meanwhile, it’s recommended that pregnant women should consume about 400 micrograms of folic acid per day for neural tube defect prevention.

With mandatory fortification, three-quarters of a cup of cereal can provide greater than 400 micrograms of folic acid. So if you add a prenatal supplement to a bowl of cereal at breakfast, some bread at lunch, and pasta for dinner, you’re consuming a lot of folic acid!

According to Dr. Deborah O’Connor, a Professor from the University of Toronto who has spent decades studying folate and infant health, this could be a problem. She explained that in animal models, it has been shown that folate can make changes to the genes that are transcribed during development. And while similar data have not been done on humans, she said “if you’re not getting any benefit from those high levels, it would be prudent to cut back given the current status…(because) if there’s no benefit, there’s only a risk.”

From a regulatory point-of-view, she says there’s nothing stopping the industry from changing the amount of folic acid in the supplements. She suggested that the industry’s reluctance to modify the dose in prenatal supplements is probably due to inertia and the fact that “with nutrition you’re always fighting against the more is better philosophy.”

In the meantime, what should women do? In their 2015 clinical practice guidelines, the Society of Obstetrics and Gynecologists recommended a multivitamin containing 400 to 1000 micrograms of folic acid. But currently, there are no prenatal vitamins available with less than 1000. Hence, Dr. O’Connor’s recommendation is “do not use the prenatal, just use a regular multi-vitamin and maybe add a little iron.” Furthermore, she added “care must be taken to ensure vitamin A intakes do not exceed 3,000 mcg retinol activity equivalents (RAE) or 10,000 IU during pregnancy.”

Alas, it’s a classic story, you try to fix one problem, but in doing so, you create another. Hopefully prenatal supplements will be adjusted soon, but in the meantime, prudent folic acid intakes are probably a good idea.