SJRI project selected by GCC for Canadian dollars 2,70,000 aid

A project from the nutrition division of Saint John’s Research Institute (SJRI), Bangalore, for improving early brain development of children in low-resource countries is one among 14 projects from 10 countries selected by Grand Challenges Canada (GCC) for fund support.

The “bold new idea” from SJRI to develop an iron-fortified biscuit gets Canadian dollars 2,70,000 (Rs.1.60 crore) under the ‘Saving Brains of Developing Countries’ programme promoted by the GCC.

The GCC, funded by the government of Canada, is an organisation dedicated to supporting bold ideas with big impact on global health.

Pratibha Dwarkanath, who is the principal investigator of the SJRI project, told The Hindu that India had one of the highest rates of anaemia globally: over 79 per cent of children aged 6 to 8 months and 58 per cent of the 26 million pregnant women each year. Some 17 million of these women had access to iron pills, yet 11 million did not take them for the recommend time period. The reason being the pill was big and tasted metallic.

Anaemia, a decrease in red blood cells leading to lack of oxygen in organs, results from micronutrient deficiencies, most often iron. She said that iron deficiency anaemia dramatically affected the health of a pregnant woman and her unborn baby, increasing the risk of death and sickness during childbirth, including haemorrhage and low-birth weight. Long-term iron deficiency anaemia delayed psychomotor development and impaired cognitive development in infants, preschool, and school-aged children.

Moreover, the researchers said, the effects of anaemia were “not likely to be corrected by subsequent iron therapy... anaemic children will have impaired performance in tests of language skills, motor skills, and coordination, reportedly equivalent to a 5 to 10 point deficit in IQ.”

Part of the answer for this could lie in iron-fortified biscuits, indistinguishable in taste from popular Indian biscuits, for use by pregnant women. Dr. Dwarkanath said the new biscuit was more likely to be used by previously non-adherent pregnant women, and increase iron stores in newborns, “which translates to more sustainable and protected early brain development.”

Prototypes

After extensive consumer research, the nutrition team led by A.V. Kurpad and the project collaborators, New York-based Violet Health Inc., developed several prototypes specifically designed keeping in mind the tastes and preferences of pregnant women in India.

“We estimate our solution to be more cost-effective than the iron pill, while reaching more anaemic women and their children. After proof of concept, we anticipate a scaled trial in Karnataka within three years and reducing anaemia in women and infants,” Dr. Dwarkanath said.

Laureen Harper, honorary chairperson of ‘Saving Brains,’ said the programme promoted the fulfilment of human capital potential by focussing on interventions that nurtured brain development in the first 1,000 days of life. The goal of the programme was to unlock the potential of children by developing and scaling up products, services, and policies that protected and nurtured early brain development in an equitable and sustainable manner, she said.

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