A Life Saver Called "Plumpynut"

Anderson Cooper Reports On A Nutritional Breakthrough

CBS All Access
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This segment was originally broadcast on Oct. 21, 2007. It was updated on June 20, 2008.

You've probably never heard a good news story about malnutrition, but you're about to. Every year, malnutrition kills five million children - that's one child every six seconds. But now, the Nobel Prize-winning relief group "Doctors Without Borders" says it finally has something that can save millions of these children.

It's cheap, easy to make, and even easier to use. What is this miraculous cure? As CNN's Anderson Cooper reports, it's a ready-to-eat, vitamin-enriched concoction called "Plumpynut," an unusual name for a food that may just be the most important advance ever to cure and prevent malnutrition.

"It's a revolution in nutritional affairs," says Dr. Milton Tectonidis, the chief nutritionist for Doctors Without Borders.

"Now we have something. It is like an essential medicine. In three weeks, we can cure a kid that is looked like they're half dead. We can cure them just like an antibiotic. It's just, boom! It's a spectacular response," Dr. Tectonidis says.

"It's the equivalent of penicillin, you're saying?" Cooper asks.

"For these kids, for sure," the doctor says.

No kids need it more than a group of children 60 Minutes saw in Niger, a desperately poor country in West Africa, where child malnutrition is so widespread that most mothers have watched at least one of their children die.

Why are so many kids dying? Because they can't get the milk, vitamins and minerals their young bodies need. Mothers in these villages can't produce enough milk themselves and can't afford to buy it. Even if they could, they can't store it -- there's no electricity, so no refrigeration. Powdered milk is useless because most villagers don't have clean water. Plumpynut was designed to overcome all these obstacles.

Plumpynut is a remarkably simple concoction: it is basically made of peanut butter, powdered milk, powdered sugar, and enriched with vitamins and minerals. It tastes like a peanut butter paste. It is very sweet, and because of that kids cannot get enough of it.

The formula was developed by a nutritionist. It doesn't need refrigeration, water, or cooking; mothers simply squeeze out the paste. Many children can even feed themselves. Each serving is the equivalent of a glass of milk and a multivitamin.

To see the impact it's having, 60 Minutes drove for 12 hours from Niger's capital to a remote village, where every week Doctors Without Borders hand out Plumpynut. After sleeping in a field under mosquito nets, Cooper and the team awoke at sunrise to find mothers emerging from the fields. Many had walked for hours in the dark, along treacherous paths, avoiding scorpions, spiders and poisonous snakes.

Rivers of women flowed into the site and within minutes there were more than a thousand of them, all waiting to get packets or tubs of Plumpynut. In a land where plastic bags are a luxury, they carry the food home in their scarves, their hands, or simply stacked on top of their heads.

"When you see some of these kids they don't look sick. They don't look malnourished. They don't have bloated bellies or little stick arms," Cooper remarks.

"The ones that we're used to seeing on TV, that's the worst of the worst of the worst. It's the tip of the iceberg. And then below that, there's the iceberg. So, there's a whole spectrum of malnutrition," Dr. Tectonidis says. "And when we go and check these kids, well, they're way off in height or in weight. They're way off."