The right nutrition intervention bundle in the first 1000 days for a fair start to life

Blog by Masum Billah and Mohd Anisul Karim, icddr,b

In current times, human capital is regarded as essential to the growth and development of nations. Factors that impede investment in the development of human capital hinder national development, arrest economic progress and deprive the country the benefits of globalization. One such adverse factor is stunting – a condition where an individual does not grow in length as they should in utero and over the first 5 years of life.

The first 1000 days encompasses the period from conception up until the child is 2 years of age. The height of the child at this age is the single best indicator of how well-off, cognitively and economically, a person will be down the road. Nutrition during this critical period is crucial to influence stature and later life outcomes. However, intuitively, many people think that everyone would have different growth trajectories during this period and that this would be influenced heavily by our genetic make-up. In reality, provided optimal environmental conditions, all children, regardless of where they live, were found to grow at similar rates in utero.

This makes research on what interventions work, can be delivered to everyone, are cost-effective and can bring about changes in a single generation – of utmost importance. To fill the evidence gap on an appropriate combination of preventive nutrition interventions, a cluster randomized trial is being conducted in a food-insecure zone of Bangladesh. The policies underpinning investments based on this research is expected to be transformative in developing counties with a high undernutrition burden. This research, funded by Transform Nutrition and led by researchers at icddr,b –attempts to explore how the right nutrition interventions can be delivered at scale to optimize human growth as capital for national and global development.

Large-scale community-based trials and their systematic reviews have demonstrated what works when implemented at scale. We know that awareness of the problem is important to drive care-seeking behaviour, and being educated makes people more likely to seek the right help. We also know that mothers appropriately counselled tend to adopt healthier practices during and after pregnancy. Counselling for exclusive breastfeeding and weaning at the right time result in a significant increase in these practices. We also understand that in resource-poor settings, nutritional supplements may improve dietary diversity. Thus, a more pertinent question, perhaps, is what combination of counselling (during and after pregnancy) and supplement (or absence of it) gives us the best value for money. This “bundling of nutrition interventions trial” currently taking place in Bangladesh is an attempt to answer a) the combined effect of the different intervention combinations, and b) if there is any evidence of synergy between prenatal and complementary feeding supplement on stunting prevention.

The TN Bundling study has 3 interventions bundled in different combinations in 4 arms with the 5th arm being the comparison group:

  1. First arm: delivers a validated counselling strategy to promote maternal nutrition during pregnancy, exclusive breastfeeding and complementary feeding, along with prenatal nutrition supplement for pregnant women and complementary food supplement for the child from 6 to 24 months of age.
  2. Second arm: provides the counselling intervention with prenatal supplementation only.
  3. Third arm: combines the same counselling intervention as above with post-natal supplementation for the child from 6-24 months of age.
  4. Fourth arm: pregnant women in this arm receive only the counselling intervention.
  5. Fifth arm: where participants will continue to follow existing practices as is.

All interventions are being delivered door-to-door by community health workers. Pregnant women are enrolled in early pregnancy and are followed up until the children reach their second birthday.  The child’s height for a given age will reflect the effectiveness of the intervention bundle in each of the 4 arms compared to the comparison arm.

We will also be exploring changes in mother and child’s dietary and hygiene practices, and childhood gut infections that have huge impact on health. A comparatively novel approach used in this project is a bespoke electronically guided (tablet-based) intervention delivery and data collection platform for all staff, and a web-based real-time monitoring system for supervisors. Further details of the study can be accessed here.

The preliminary results of the trial are due in 2018. Choosing the right combination of interventions, based on the trial findings, will help policymakers in Bangladesh and other developing countries to make data-driven budgetary decisions. This will ultimately build on the demographic dividend Bangladesh has already achieved and accelerate our progress towards a middle income country.

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