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Somalia famine revives debate: is it acceptable to patent aid?

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"It doesn't matter if people are priced out of the market for an iPad," says Owen Barder, a senior fellow and director for Europe at the Center for Global Development. "But it's not at all fine when it's a vaccine or Plumpy'nut."

A new model for malnutrition care

The Plumpy'nut formula is simple: peanuts, sugar, milk-based proteins, vegetable oil, and a mix of vitamins and micronutrients. Each serving comes in a foil packet. It needs no refrigeration and is ready to eat.

With three daily packets of Plum­py'nut, the recommended regimen, a child can make enormous strides in just a few weeks, says Stéphane Doyon, the nutritional team leader at Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

What makes RUTFs truly transformative for aid organizations is the way they changed the model of care for malnutrition, allowing for treatment at home. Children and their mothers no longer have to remain in hospitals for weeks at a time, which can pose a health threat and strain staff resources, Mr. Doyon says.

Shifting to RUTFs also eases demands on staff in the field. In 2002, MSF needed 2,000 staff to treat 8,000 children. In 2004, MSF's first time using the paste on a large scale, it treated 10,000 kids with only 120 staff. In 2005, it treated 40,000 children.

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