Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) researcher heads back to Cambodia to study nutrition, combat infant mortality

22 January 2018 Cambodia

Dr. Kyly Whitfield poses with children in this photo taken during her previous work in rural Cambodia.Dr. Kyly Whitfield poses with children in this photo taken during her previous work in rural Cambodia.

A Halifax-based researcher will soon be heading back to Cambodia as she continues to study food fortification and nutrition in the southeast Asian country.

Dr. Kyly Whitfield, an assistant professor in applied human nutrition at Halifax’ s Mount Saint Vincent University, will be heading back to Cambodia later this year courtesy of a $1-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Whitfield, part of a partnership with the Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science at the New York Academy of Science, will continue to research thiamine deficiency among mothers and babies.

Thiamine, also known as Vitamin B1, is an important vitamin in human development and can be found in yeast, grains, beans, nuts and meat.

Thiamine deficiency can result in infantile beriberi — an often fatal condition that is preventable with proper treatment and a nutritious diet.

It is a disease that has been all but eradicated in Canada and other regions.

As part of her trip to Cambodia, she’ll begin a new study that will attempt to identify the optimal amount of thiamine required for a mother to consume in order pass the nutrient to her baby through her breast milk. Whitfield believes that the study will help pinpoint ways of preventing infantile beriberi.

“We know what causes infantile beriberi, and we know how to solve it,” Whitfield says. “It’s unacceptable that we are still seeing infant mortality from something that is totally preventable.”

Whitfield will also collaborate with psychologists from the University of Oregon as they explore the possibility that subclinical, or low-level, thiamine deficiency has the ability to cause cognitive impairments.

The team will look to assess infants whose mothers have consumed varying levels of thiamine.

“For years we have been blaming poor school performance among children in this region on stunted growth or anemia. What if it’s not those things? What if it’s actually (low-level) thiamine deficiency?” said Whitfield.

Whitfield and her team’s work will take roughly two years to complete with results of her research available by the fall of 2019.