Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

HEALTH-BANGLADESH: Wonder Cure for Malnutrition

Tabibul Islam

DHAKA, May 29 1998 (IPS) - Bangladeshi scientists have found a low- cost solution to the enormous problem of malnutrition — that affects most people in this poor country.

‘Spirulina’, a blue green micro algae rich in protein, vitamins and minerals, has been adapted for growing in the country’s steamy, tropical weather by the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR).

Scientist Sajada Begum, part of the special research team that has studied ‘Spirulina’ at BCSIR, said she has been successfully carrying out production trials for the last one year with poor families.

Now, everyone who has a sun-filled patch at home and the money to buy three red coloured 30-litre plastic basins, sodium bicarbonate, common salt, urea and an ash mixture of coconut and banana leaves for use as nutrients, can grow ‘Spirulina.

The BCSIR says it has perfected a technique that assures round the year production at roughly 300 takas (six dollars) for one kilogramme. Spirulina produced by other methods costs as much as 1,500 takas per kg.

Bangladesh has been producing Spirulina in laboratories since 1978 together with the French government who promised scientific and technical assistance only if Bangladesh promised to produce Spirulina for domestic consumption only.

While the original culture was brought to Dhaka from India, scientists at BCSIR put in years of research to adapt it for Bangladesh’s very wet climate. The breakthrough was made by an eight-member team that includes Sajada Begum and is led by Dr. F. Z. Majid.

Their pioneering method has been used by private companies in Bangladesh to sell limited quantities of Spirulina — both powder and capsules — in the market since 1993.

Spirulina has the approval of the the World Health Organisation (WHO), and is traded across the counter in the United States, Germany, Japan, France, Mexico, Vietnam, India and some other countries, for its high protein, rich in Vitamin A and B, and minerals including iron.

Dr. Majid called it a “gift of Allah” for the poor in Bangladesh, and has urged the government health departments and non-governmental organisations to promote its production.

BCSIR scientists, he said, were ready to assist in the training of field workers at the village level for the mass production of Spirulina as a solution for malnutrition.

Bangladesh has one of the world’s largest population of malnourished people. Though only half of its estimated 120 million people live in absolute poverty, a staggering 93 percent of children under five are under-fed, and suffer from dietary deficiency diseases like goitre and anaemia. Most babies are born underweight since their mothers are chronically malnourished.

Half a million children die every year due to complications resulting from malnutrition, annually 30,000 children go blind due to Vitamin A deficiency and 56 million people have visible and palpable goitre due to iodine deficiency.

The U.N children’s agency UNICEF has said that poverty is not the only reason for malnutrition in Bangladesh. Surveys have shown that more than 60 percent of malnourished children come from households with enough food for all its members.

Since 1996, a UNICEF supported programme called the Bangladesh Integrated Nutrition Programme has been trying to reduce malnutrition among women and children through household food security, behavioural changes related to food intake, infant feeding practices, growth monitoring and caring practices.

Spirulina, BCSIR scientists said, was the ideal food. The World Food Conference in 1974 had declared Spirulina as the “food for tomorrow” for its nutritive value which is worth more than most vegetables.

According to the scientists, just 3 grammes of Spirulina eaten daily by a severely malnourished person would in three weeks make the person healthier.

It has also been found to have extensive use in medicine, as a health food, specialised animal feed and even in cosmetics in many industrialised countries.

Medical experts have used it successfully to counter night blindness, diabetes, protein deficiency, anaemia, ulcers, hepatitis, obesity, blood circulation disorders and for nursing mothers to increase lactation, BCSIR scientists said.

Spirulina grows naturally, and in abundance in parts of Africa and South America. However, it is produced artificially on a commercial and semi-commercial scale elsewhere including in Japan and Thailand.

Scientist Sajada Begum said Bangladesh has the capacity to cultivate large quantities of the nutritious algae at no real extra cost — it required very little supervision, water and land.

Not only is it a solution for malnutrition, but it is beneficial for the environment, she said, adding that it was very green friendly.

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