A nutritional disease researcher at Mount Saint Vincent University is hoping a new grant will help prevent the deaths of hundreds of infants in Southeast Asia.
Dr. Kyly Whitfield has received over $1-million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of a partnership with the Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science.
Whitfield has been in Cambodia studying how to reduce beriberi, a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1, also known as thiamine.
She said the lack of thiamine could cause cognitive deficits, or even be fatal.
"We know what causes beriberi, we know how to treat it, we know how to prevent it, but there's still pockets of the world where babies are dying of beriberi," she explained.
Whitfield said if mothers don't eat enough thiamine, it won't passed along to their babies through their breast milk.
She's been studying the deficiency for a number of years.
Her previous research in rural Cambodia focused on improving the intake in mothers by enriching fish sauce with the nutrient, however she said fish sauce isn't as commonly consumed in other regions where beriberi is a factor, like Laos and Myanmar.
"We've come back to the drawing board and thought salt is probably a better vehicle," she explained. "We're doing research to see if we can add thiamine to salt, and then give that salt to lactating or breastfeeding moms to see if it can improve their thiamine status, and then trickle down to the baby."
Whitfield said the million-dollar grant will allow her, along with two MSVU graduate students, to return to Cambodia in April so they can start collecting data.
"We're going to be testing all of the blood and breast milk samples that we collect from moms and their babies for thiamine status several times throughout the six-month trial," she said. "The majority of the money is being wired straight to Cambodia to pay field staff there, and to run all of those blood samples and breast milk samples."
She said beriberi isn't always the most top of mind issue when in comes to infant mortality, but she hopes the money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will be able to prevent hundreds of deaths in Southeast Asia.
Whitfield's work in Cambodia should take about two years with results expected by the fall of 2019.