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Leveraging Nuclear Techniques to Better Understand Body Composition

Participants at the coordination meeting, held from 11 to 15 April at the IAEA’s Vienna headquarters.

IAEA Member States are increasingly discovering the presence, and indeed growth, of both undernutrition and obesity, often coexisting in the same region, community or even household. Today, low and middle-income countries (LMICs) are working to address not only moderate (MAM) and severe (SAM) acute malnutrition, which often leads to mortality among infants and young children, but also obesity, which affects 42 million children and is now recognised as a global public health problem.

In light of the growing dimensions of this challenge, the IAEA recently organized a coordination meeting, held from 11 to 15 April at the IAEA’s Vienna headquarters and attended by three international nutrition experts and 14 African Member State representatives. The attendees gathered to develop a roadmap toward a comprehensive evaluation of the impact of programmes aimed at addressing both MAM and SAM, in order to improve our collective understanding of the relative success or weaknesses of current approaches.

The accurate and objective assessment of nutrition and health indicators is important for the successful evaluation of programmes to treat MAM and SAM. Body composition (fat mass and lean mass) is an indicator that sits at the intricate cross-section between nutrition and risk for non-communicable diseases (NCDs). IAEA Member States are increasingly turning to non-radioactive, stable isotope techniques to assess body composition, both as an indicator of the impact of early malnutrition on the child’s current health and as a guide towards effective treatments which reduce the risk of adverse health outcomes in later life. By collecting this follow-up data, researchers and policy-makers will be well positioned to craft new, supportive policies and to eventually improve the survival of children suffering from MAM and SAM.

At the request of eight Member States in the Africa region—namely Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia—the IAEA recently launched a regional technical cooperation (TC) project which aims to provide the participating countries with capacities in assessing the body composition of children previously treated for malnutrition. Body composition will be measured using the deuterium dilution technique, which is accurate, objective and less invasive than traditional techniques, such as measuring skinfold thickness.

Following a number of regional training courses which will build capacities in the deuterium dilution technique, data management and analysis, the participating Member States will be poised to measure the nutritional status, body composition and physical function of children who have been previously diagnosed and treated for SAM or MAM. Armed with the insights provided by this new information, policy makers will determine whether progress in the fight against malnutrition was incidental or deliberate, whether their policies support or hinder nutritional progress, and whether or not interventions to improve these policies need to be made.

Launched earlier this year, the ongoing regional project has already facilitated an exchange of experiences across the region, and will ultimately equip counterparts with the stable isotope tools necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of national programmes that treat MAM and SAM.

Participants at the coordination meeting, held from 11 to 15 April at the IAEA’s Vienna headquarters.

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