Debra J. Saunders

A world away from the fires of California, harvest is beginning in Niger. "The fields are green. Everything's green. It started raining in June and rained regularly through September. The millet fields are doing pretty well. Families are going about their daily business of fetching water and firewood and doing laundry and making things to eat. People are selling firewood by the roadside. The women will gather leaves for making sauces," recalls Susan Shepherd. And fewer children are going hungry, as often happens before the harvest is done.

You may have seen Shepherd, a Montana pediatrician, on "60 Minutes" Sunday. Shepherd has just returned from 18 months in Niger working on a project sponsored by Doctors Without Borders that fed 63,000 malnourished or starving children on a monthly basis. It was, as "60 Minutes" noted, the rare good-news story on hunger, as Doctors Without Borders has found a way to treat not only the worst cases, but also to help prevent children from the sort of malnourishment that leads to disease and even death.

The reason: Plumpy'Nut and Plumpy'Doz -- two versions of a sweet-tasting paste made from peanuts, peanut oil, powdered milk and powdered sugar, and fortified with vitamins and minerals. A serving of Plumpy'Nut is the equivalent of a glass of milk and a Flintstones vitamin. Plumpy'Doz is a take-home supplement of Plumpy'Nut for the moderately malnourished.

Plumpy'Nut represents a revolution in the treatment of hunger and malnutrition. It is an RUF, or ready-to-use food.

As the folks at Doctors Without Borders (which is the English name for the French humanitarian group MSF or Medecins Sans Frontieres) explain in a recent paper, "Food Is Not Enough: Without Essential Nutrients, Millions of Children Will Die," humanitarian workers pioneered the use of powdered-milk formula to treat severe malnutrition. But these formulas required clean water and often had to be prepared in hospitals.

In search of a better and more practical way, a French medical researcher and the French company Nutriset invented Plumpy'Nut in 1997. It has the nutritional value of the old powdered-milk formula but does not require water, does not have to be mixed, requires no refrigeration, can be stored in hot climates, has a long shelf life and is easy to transport. Because it's sweet and peanut-ty tasting, even children so deprived that they have lost their appetite will eat it.

With the development of Plumpy'Doz, Doctors Without Borders has been able to treat more children, and not just the worst cases. Shepherd explained, "Instead of waiting for kids to get gravely ill, we decided to act earlier."

Debra J. Saunders

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