Nova Scotia

Halifax researcher hopes to use table salt to prevent infant deaths in Cambodia

An assistant professor from Halifax has $1 million in new funding to help her determine if a table salt mixture will eradicate a deadly childhood nutritional disorder in Southeast Asia.

Kyly Whitfield of Mount Saint Vincent University has $1M to find out if her plan can prevent beriberi

Kyly Whitfield is an assistant professor in applied human nutrition at Mount Saint Vincent University. (Dianne Paquette/CBC)

An assistant professor from Halifax has $1 million in new funding to help her determine if a table salt mixture will eradicate a deadly childhood nutritional disorder in Southeast Asia.

Kyly Whitfield is a nutritional researcher at Mount Saint Vincent University and has spent years trying to figure out how to eradicate beriberi — a disorder caused by a deficiency in thiamine, also known as vitamin B1. 

The disorder can cause impairment in the nerves and heart, and can kill infants and harm adults, according to the World Health Organization's website.

The money for Whitfield's research comes from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Sackler Institute at the New York Academy of Sciences. The funding will help Whitfield figure out if her plan to use salt mixed with thiamine will work.

"At the end of two years we'll know exactly how much salt people are eating and exactly how much thiamine we need to add to salt to optimize breast-milk thiamine concentrations to prevent beriberi," Whitfield told CBC's Mainstreet.

A Cambodian salt producer shows Whitfield some of the equipment used to mix thiamine into salt. (Kyly Whitfield)

The main reason people in Cambodia suffer from beriberi is because their staple food is white rice, which doesn't contain B vitamins. 

Whitfield said that love of white rice won't be a problem once she figures out exactly how much thiamine needs to be added to salt.

In many countries, table salt is already mixed with iodine to help prevent iodine deficiency. Iodine is essential for healthy brain development in fetuses and young children and its deficiency can negatively affect the health of women, according to the World Health Organization.

"We can go to the salt producers and say here's the recipe, you're already iodizing, toss this much thiamine into that iodine pre-mix and you're good to go and we won't see beriberi anymore," Whitfield said. "That's the goal."

She said if the program works in Cambodia it can be used in other countries, such as Myanmar and Laos, where people suffer from beriberi.

In an earlier study, thiamine was put into fish sauce. (Kyly Whitfield)

Whitfield has been researching thiamine for almost six years. Originally, she thought she could get rid of thiamine deficiency by adding the vitamin to fish sauce, a widely used ingredient in Cambodia.

The fish sauce plan worked, but it was difficult to adapt for the entire country. There are a large variety of companies in Cambodia that make fish sauce, making it difficult to add thiamine to each. Also, people in the poorest communities can't afford fish sauce.

The other flaw is that other countries in southeast Asia don't use as much fish sauce as Cambodians. 

But table salt is used almost everywhere and is relatively cheap, making it the perfect vehicle for thiamine.  

Whitfield is returning to Cambodia on Thursday to continue her research. 

With files from Mainstreet

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