The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently made a change that has the potential to save the lives of malnourished children worldwide: Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) has been added to WHO’s Model List of Essential Medicines (EML) for the first time. While this update may sound technical – or even like a commonplace amendment – it should not be understated what an enormous milestone this EML update is for the endeavor of scaling up wasting treatment for children suffering from severe malnutrition.
The model EML is a directory of “minimum medicine needs for every health-care system,” and serves as a model for national governments’ essential medicines lists. The WHO stipulates that essential medicines are the ones that are most needed for a population’s health. By including RUTF – a life-saving medical food made from a blend of peanuts and micronutrients – on this list, it should now be easier for nutrition champions in country governments to get RUTF added to their national EMLs and prioritized for procurement. Ultimately, this update means that more children in need can be treated with RUTF.
The inclusion of RUTF on the EML also represents a clear global marker that wasting treatment should be a fundamental component of a well-functioning health system. This update is a long time coming. The Eleanor Crook Foundation (ECF) has pursued many efforts to improve funding for RUTF, advocating for integration of RUTF within national health systems, for financial support from donors, and for clear guidance from multilateral agencies. One of the initiatives ECF funded, in partnership with UNICEF, was getting RUTF considered for WHO’s EML. Discussions about whether RUTF should be on the Essential Medicines List began over a decade ago, and its inclusion on the list is the result of a significant review of the scientific evidence of its cost-effectiveness and safety.
Despite being entirely preventable and treatable, malnutrition remains the number one cause of child deaths worldwide. And child wasting— the deadliest form of malnutrition – persists as a significant global public health problem. Right now, it is estimated that at any one time, 45 million children are at risk of dying from wasting.
But when a child suffering from wasting is treated with RUTF, they have a ninety percent chance of fully recovering in a matter of weeks. And yet more than three-quarters of children who suffer from wasting lack access to RUTF. This gap in coverage is not because national governments lack knowledge about the life-saving impact of RUTF – but is instead largely due to insufficient funding for and availability of this medical food.
With RUTF now on the Essential Medicines List, we are hopeful that this update will facilitate better national-level procurement of RUTF and integration into health systems to reach vulnerable children in need. We are proud to have supported the application for RUTF to be included on the EML – and we call on the international community to redouble efforts to raise resources for this essential, life-saving product.
Photo Credit: © UNICEF/Abdihakim