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Major Donation to Boost IAEA Efforts on Child Nutrition


Body composition can be assessed by deuterium dilution. The deuterium is given to the baby using a syringe. (Photo: T. Bandara)

The IAEA has received a grant of over US $ 1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the IAEA’s work in combating malnutrition in children. The funding will cover the cost of research using stable isotope and related techniques to collect data on healthy growth and body composition in infants, mainly in low and middle income countries. The results will help Member States fight both childhood obesity and undernutrition.

The funding is the first major donation from non-state donors to the IAEA in recent years. The Agency is enhancing efforts to promote partnerships and attract funding from private donors under its Strategic Guidelines on Partnership and Resource Mobilization.  

“Fighting malnutrition is a great example of the use of nuclear techniques in support of development objectives,” said IAEA Deputy Director General Aldo Malavasi. “The funding provided by the Gates foundation will enable the IAEA and its partners to accelerate research in this area.”

The grant contributes to the IAEA coordinated research project “Longitudinal Measures of Body Composition of Healthy Infants and Young Children up to 2 Years of Age Using Stable Isotope Techniques”. It will generate reference data on body composition changes in healthy children in order to better understand the effects of low birth weight, wasting and stunting on body composition.

The IAEA coordinated research project is following-up infants from birth to 12 months and collecting data on body composition, assessed using the deuterium dilution technique (see box), and information on weight, length, skinfold thickness and mid-upper arm circumference, as well as infant feeding practices and health, when the children are three, six, nine and 12 months old.

The grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will allow for follow-up of infants in Brazil, South Africa and Sri Lanka at 18 and 24 months of age. In addition, it will support the study of changes in body composition in infants from birth to six months in Australia, India and South Africa. The overall aim is to collect information from children representing various ethnic groups around the world. The foundation has dozens of projects that intersect with and complement IAEA efforts to target and better understand causes of malnutrition.

Appropriate nutrition in the first 1000 days — from conception to an infant’s second birthday — is essential for optimum growth and brain development; inappropriate nutrition can increase the risk of ill health in later life, said Christine Slater, a nutrient specialist at the IAEA.

Only recording the height and weight of infants, as traditionally done, does not capture the quality of body growth. Equally important is monitoring body composition that includes assessing the relative amounts of fat and lean, or fat-free, tissue. “Two individuals can have the same weight and height but differ markedly in the proportions of fat and lean tissue and hence risk of non-communicable diseases in later life,” Slater added. Higher percentage of fat tissue carries an increased risk of disease.

The data records collated will be used to construct charts on changes in body composition as children grow. These can be used as reference data for evaluation of nutritional interventions, such as education of mothers on appropriate complementary feeding practices, and nutrition supplementation for the prevention and treatment of malnutrition in young children.

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