Winter 2015

Fight Epidemics with Food

A message from the director of the HNRCA

By Simin Nikbin Meydani

100915_3552_KMA_HNRCA718.jpgThe deadly outbreak of Ebola in West Africa continues to spread, despite the heroic efforts of health-care workers. Those patients who contract the disease and survive appear to have something in common: Their bodies are able to stand up to the virus’s first attack with a robust immune response, followed by a measured inflammatory response. This keeps the virus from rapidly reproducing and causing lethal damage to key organs.

As I read news stories about the outbreak, I can’t help but ask what role nutrition could play in helping stem the spread and mortality of the disease—and perhaps deterring future outbreaks. We have known for many years that a healthy immune system goes hand in hand with good nutrition. Adequate nutrition plays a key role in ensuring a robust and early immune response as well as a disciplined inflammatory response.

Nutrients are needed for the normal function of the immune response, whether it is to increase the number of cells capable of fighting the virus, produce antibodies and other key mediators, such as cytokines, or kill the invading pathogens. Proper nutrition is also important in keeping inflammation under control. Producing inflammatory molecules is part of the normal process of defending the body against viral infections, yet heightened and continued inflammation, as is seen with Ebola, can result in extensive cellular damage with dire consequences.

It seems telling that many emerging infectious diseases have originated in regions of the world where malnutrition is prevalent. Malnutrition is the primary cause of immunodeficiency worldwide, and West Africa is no exception. The area has long struggled with a food crisis brought on by seasonal food shortages and high prices. (See “Finding the Next Famine,” page 18.) A 2012 report about Liberia found that 36 percent of the population was malnourished.

I wonder how continued food scarcity will affect future outbreaks. If a vaccine were to be developed for Ebola, how effective would it be in a malnourished person with an impaired ability to produce antibodies and appropriate cell-mediated responses?

At first glance, the Ebola outbreak is a medical crisis, but at its core, it is also a nutritional one. While the barriers to better nourishing the global population have never been more complex, we have even more reason to strive to do so.

Simin Nikbin Meydani, D.V.M., Ph.D
Director, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging





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