Research explores strategies to improve nutrition in parts of Asia and Africa

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – New studies underway in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are seeking answers about how best to plan and implement health services in low- and middle-income countries, as well as how to best evaluate outcomes as health services evolve. The results will inform data-driven and culturally appropriate strategies for conducting humanitarian work. In collaboration with governments, UN organizations, and community stakeholders across continents, the studies are animated by the common insight that social and behavioral variables can play a decisive role in determining the effectiveness of interventions.

Stephen Kodish

Stephen Kodish, assistant professor of biobehavioral health and nutritional sciences. Kodish is advancing research on strategies to improve nutrition among vulnerable populations in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Stephen Kodish

The research is being headed up by Stephen Kodish, assistant professor of biobehavioral health and nutritional sciences in the College of Health and Human Development, whose expertise centers on understanding the factors contributing to malnutrition among vulnerable populations. His work aims to identify the modifiable factors that influence health inequity and to work with communities to mobilize the necessary resources to reach under-served areas of the world.

Kodish is overseeing three related research projects that are intended to inform both government actions and future humanitarian initiatives.

  • For a project in Sri Lanka, Kodish is serving as principal investigator for a study—undertaken in partnership with UNICEF, the University of Colombo and national government agencies—that is examining the drivers of high malnutrition rates among children.
  • A similar formative project underway in Burkina Faso, Madagascar, Tanzania and Bangladesh is introducing nutritional supplements to pregnant women as a measure to yield better birth outcomes.
  • In collaboration with two Penn State colleagues—Muzi Na, assistant professor of nutritional sciences, and Laura Murray-Kolb, associate professor of nutritional sciences—Kodish recently completed work on a third study, executed in West and Central Africa and also conducted in collaboration with UNICEF, that focused on infant and child feeding practices.

These studies all contribute to the broader goal of satisfying nutritional requirements at key stages of development and supporting governments as they strive to achieve the UN’s second sustainable development goal: end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

“Disease burdens fall on vulnerable populations in vastly disproportionate measure, and that’s not simply an accident of fate; structural inequities create environments that are not enabling for positive health behavior change for far too many communities,” Kodish said. “And where enabling environments do exist, our own behavioral choices, even if motivated by good or benign intentions, have consequences. The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the importance of human behavior — mask-wearing, staying inside, physical distancing — all of which impact health outcomes. We’re taking that behavior change focus and asking how it can be harnessed to better address malnutrition.”

Kodish’s research has been bolstered by the Ann Atherton Hertzler Early Career Professorship in Nutritional Sciences, a three-year appointment that began in the summer of 2019. He has used the additional financial resources to enhance his research team, which now includes co-investigators from the Penn State College of Medicine, as well as several undergraduates and two doctoral students. The early career professorship has also amplified the reach of his findings by giving him the opportunity to present research findings at an international nutrition conference held last year that was hosted by Action Against Hunger in Paris.

Kodish is slated to deliver a virtual presentation on his global health projects later this month. The event, which will cover the impetus behind his research approaches and highlight current projects in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, is open to the public and will take place over Zoom at 8 p.m. Oct. 22. Details and registration information can be found by visiting the College of Health and Human Development alumni event calendar.

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