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Africa needs lifesaving high-lysine corn.


If it hadn't been for Dr. Edwin Mertz' high-lysine corn, I would not have gone to Ethiopia. I tried to persuade Dr. Mertz, the Purdue University professor who developed high-lysine corn, to go, but he declined reluctantly, although he assured me the trip was necessary. "Those children need far more protein than the adults do to survive,' he said. "We should send high-lysine corn and earmark it for the children only.' Adults can survive on regular corn.

That's way I wanted to go to Ethiopia--because I wanted to see the children with kwashiorkor and then see if the disease could be prevented by providing the youngsters with high-lysine corn instead of regular corn. We wanted to see if it was possible to establish channels and get the corn with the higher lysine content right to the children who need it.

Kwashiorkor is a disease of children, not from insufficient calories but from insufficient protein. Guess which protein building block, which amino acid, is the most deficient in their mostly grain diet? Our old friend lysine is particularly deficient in the maize (corn) they eat.

Dr. Mertz, as Post readers know, has been recommended by us and others to receive the Nobel Prize for discovering, with his colleagues in the Purdue University agronomy department, the mutation that made the breeding of Opaque 2 high-lysine corn possible. This corn contains about twice as much quality protein as regular corn. It has become known as high-lysine corn.

When the lysine content is high, the contents of tryptophan and other essential amino acids are also increased. These protein building blocks can only be utilized for nutrition as long as they are all available. In other words, your corn is only as good as the least prevalent amino acid. When you run out of the least-prevalent amino acid, the other essential amino acids available are often wasted--then growth or repair of body tissue can't go on. All of our muscles, brain cells and vital organs are made of protein.

A child's rapidly growing brain needs protein to grow Betz cells as well as to replace blood cells. An adult's neurological endowment is all set, and a little fasting doesn't do irreparable harm. For a child, protein deficiency can change the rest of his life or end it.

The word "kwashiorkor' comes from the Ghan language and means "the disease the baby gets when the next baby comes.' The No. 1 baby gets it when he or she is deposed from the mother's breast for the No. 2 baby--that's what mothers in Africa have known for a long time. Some say the word also means "red' and was used to describe the reddish-brown hair a child with kwashiorkor developed. "Pluckable hair,' the nurses call it. The children lose the curl in their hair; it becomes straight with streaks of orange, red and gray. Pigment leaves the skin, which develops a reddish cast.

Without the protein building blocks, not enough albumin can be made, and fluid from the blood seeps into the body tissue. This loss gives the face a puffy, full look that might deceptively belie the child's dire prognosis. The fluid seeps into the child's legs first and causes them to swell like an elderly person's legs swollen from congestive heart failure. Gradually the swelling works up the body, until it may eventually cover the entire body. Most of the time, however, the arms remain spindly and the legs may be three times the size of the arms. The abdomen becomes bloated with what doctors call ascites, or fluid in the peritoneal cavity.

The starving child loses something else--his appetite. He is consuming his own body's protein for energy. Because of a continuing lack of calories, the total body protein is being utilized. His muscle tissue, his brain cells. . .all are cannibalized by catabolism, a kind of metabolism where the body feeds on itself. The child becomes cross, refuses to eat and must be fed through a nasogastric tube or intravenously.

As with so many diseases of mankind, it is easier to prevent than to treat kwashiorkor. I had studied kwashiorkor with special interest in medical school because I had a suppressed desire to be a medical missionary someday and help solve a few of the enormous world health problems. My knowledge of the disease was all from textbooks--I had never seen kwashiorkor in U.S. hospitals.

I wanted to see if the Ethiopians were treating the kwashiorkor with calorie-dense foods sufficiently high in protein. Given the debilitation and death caused by kwashiorkor, it would be not only humane but also imperative to prevent it by simply changing the kind of maize the children eat. Preventing kwashiorkor is obviously the only answer, because facilities for treatment are virtually nonexistent.

Dr. Mertz couldn't join me, but our new director of educational services at the Saturday Evening Post Society, Peter Michael, wanted to go. He grew up in Africa as the son of medical missionaries, and for him, "It would be like going home,' he said. Peter is himself an ordained minister. Once the subject was broached, he must have been praying for our safe deliverance. From the moment he became involved, everything happened with a certain determination. Peter had a good friend, Roger Schrock, a missionary in neighboring Sudan, who gave us good advice about the people's needs.

Through Tom Fellows, who works for Food for the Hungry in Ethiopia, we were able to expedite our visas. At the last moment, the Ethiopian government seemed to be holding them up for whatever reasons--we didn't know why.

The Ethiopians know and respect Tom and his whole family. His parents have spent most of their lives working for the Sudan Interior Mission, and because he grew up there, Tom speaks their language fluently. Without Tom's intercession, we probably wouldn't have been able to get the visas.

Before leaving for Ethiopia, we made phone calls to Ajinomoto U.S.A., Inc., to see if we could obtain some powdered lysine for the African children who need it.

I had difficulty communicating with the officials of the Japanese company because of the language barrier, but Dr. Tadao Ueda, who is in charge of the Ajinomoto branch office in Los Angeles, was very interested in what I was trying to explain to him about kwashiorkor. Dr. Ted Yamamori, the president of Food for the Hungry, who was also going to Ethiopia, was able to meet with Dr. Ueda and explain the project to him in Japanese. As a result of their meeting, Dr. Yamamori was able to bring samples of fermented lysine to us in Ethiopia.

Not until we began researching lysine several years ago did we discover none is manufactured (fermented) in the United States. All our U.S. packagers of lysine pills buy the product from Japanese firms, who, early on, began experimenting with the proteins in plant foods and plankton from the sea. Their large population and lack of sufficient animal protein no doubt created their strong motivation to search for alternative sources of protein.

Could the Japanese technology help Africa in its immediate crisis of human nutrition? The Japanese make animal-grade and human-grade lysine. The latter, naturally, is somewhat more expensive--about $1.30 per pound.

American farmers feed lysine supplement to their pigs as "pig starters.' Young chickens get it as "chick starter.' To be competitive, farmers and animal-food producers must know a lot about the need for protein in growing pigs and chickens. They have only one stomach; like humans, they can't manufacture their own lysine either. (Cows aren't as dependent on lysine in their food, because with their four stomachs, they can synthesize this amino acid from nonprotein nitrogen compounds in their food.)

Midwest farmers buy lysine-containing supplements by the carload. Ajinomoto is building a $42 million plant in Eddyville, Iowa, where lysine will be fermented from corn to be made into either animal supplement or lysine tablets for human consumption. (Post readers know about Dr. Richard Griffith and the work this Indiana University professor of medicine has done in preventing herpesvirus outbreaks with lysine supplementation and a low-arginine diet.)

For two days I was the only doctor in a large redistribution camp where famine refugees were fed and prepared to be transported to other settlement locations. As we drove to the camp, Tom Fellows said, "You know, the children don't really die from kwashiorkor . . . they just die from anything that comes along. They have no immune defenses at all. They die from measles, cholera, an infection, just anything that comes along. They die unexpectedly.'

"It's as though they had AIDS,' I thought.

Tom brought the first kwashiorkor patient to me. It was the red hair, he said. The little fellow had a very large, distended belly and somewhat swollen ankles. He didn't look as sick as many of the more emaciated toddlers suffering from marasmus, the name given to calorie-deficient malnutrition. Kwashiorkor is commonly called protein-deficient malnutrition, and of course, many combinations of both are prevalent throughout the camps.

Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, an Ethiopianborn professor of agronomy at Purdue University, told us later that, when the United States does not have sufficient wheat and corn to send to Africa, a sorghum grain used mainly for cattle feed is sent.

However, this sorghum grain contains tannin, which prevents the protein from being utilized by humans. Calves can grow on it because they have four stomachs. Humans cannot use its protein because with one stomach the tannin interferes.

Sorghum, therefore, provides ample calories but little or no usable protein. "In place of grain sorghum, sending high-lysine corn is a tremendous idea,' Dr. Ejeta said.

We delivered the lysine supplements and high-lysine corn to Ali Muhammad Ali, the director at the camp, and told him how they could be prepared. He will use these supplies to feed some of the small children who desperately need the additional protein. I was frustrated that we were not immediately able to provide more of the high-lysine corn to these people who so desperately need it.

Another dismaying thing we discovered at the camp was that Ali was chain smoking. His assistant, the No. 2 man at the camp, was smoking, too. They both could speak some English; neither of them seemed to know that smoking was dangerous to their health. Their cigarette packages carried no warnings. None of the large, ubiquitous advertisements for Winston and Marlboro in Ethiopia carried any warnings.

We gave Ali some Nicorette (a chewing gum containing nicotine), and he was most happy to accept it. The next day, he asked for more. He was chewing away. In all seriousness, Ali readily signed a pledge never to smoke again, and in the presence of his many food recipients, he repeated a vow in four languages. He was a linguist and could speak the languages of most of the refugees in the camp. "I promise I'll never smoke again,' he repeated in four different languages. We promised to send him more Nicorette.

On the trip back I had a marvelous opportunity to debrief Richard Schubert, the president of the American Red Cross. He is a most innovative man with a background of responsible care of the less fortunate. He and his family are members of the Church of the Nazarene. He practices his faith and has the dynamism of any Fortune 500 CEO to get things organized and executed.

"There is enough electricity to provide teaching films for them to learn. They could be taught to be self-sufficient,' he suggested.

Dick Schubert spent summers on his grandfather's farm and he has a good understanding of plant genetics and animal nutrition. He knows enough about planting to understand that growing hybrid seed is imperative to increasing the corn yield.

From our investigations, or as nearly as we could discover, the farmers in Ethiopia aren't using hybrid corn. Any Iowa farmer can tell you that before the days of hybrid corn, even the fertile Iowa soil would do well to produce 50 bushels to the acre. With hybrid varieties, one Iowa farm last year won a prize for producing 187 bushels per acre.

"We can't give them hybrid seed because they would save some of this year's crop and use it for seed next year . . . then they would have a disaster,' Tom had warned me earlier. The crops would fail if they tried to save some of their hybrid corn crop to use as seed the following year. It would be worse than the open-pollinated nonhybrid corn, he said. They might get no crop at all--but by teaching them with animated films and videocassettes, we could soon convert them to hybrid varieties, and, of course, high-lysine varieties for their particular soils.

Kenneth Crow of the Crow Seed Corn Company in Illinois (the only U.S. company furnishing high-lysine seed corn at the present time) has volunteered to send more than 20 pounds each of the many varieties of high-lysine hybrid corn to Ethiopia so that the Ethiopian farmers may experiment to see which kind grows best. The Ethiopian farmers could double or triple their yield with hybrid corn, and high-lysine corn nearly doubles the amount of protein per bushel as well.

Such a four to six-fold increase in protein production could make Africa self-sufficient --especially if corn could be subsidized to be planted on their land presently growing tobacco. Zimbabwe, now suffering starvation in some of its border areas near Mozambique, is the No. 2 exporter of tobacco. It exports hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tobacco each year.

When we returned from Africa, Peter and I had a meeting and a press conference with Dr. Mertz and Dr. Griffith.

We devised a plan for Ethiopia as follows:

First, Ethiopia could combat the dreaded kwashiorkor in African children with the use of lysine in three forms.

(a) Fermented lysine in powder form could be used immediately for starving children.

(b) High-lysine corn currently available in the United States could be sent to hungry families in Ethiopia and incorporated into their regular diet.

(c) High-lysine seed corn, being hybrid, could vastly increase next year's corn production as well as nearly double the amount of protein in the corn available to feed those with protein deficiency.

Second, the government of Ethiopia should substitute high-lysine corn for its tobacco crops.

Third, the Ethiopian government should provide nicotine-containing gums or lozenges to alleviate the addiction from which the population now smoking cigarettes suffers, so that its health-care system will be able to serve the starving sick. Many millions of dollars must otherwise be spent on health care brought about by smoking encouraged by the lack of warning notices on cigarette packages and ads in Ethiopia.

Fourth, the plan also urges the option of planting high-lysine corn instead of tobacco for U.S. farmers who own tobacco allotments but choose instead to plant the high-protein corn to feed the starving. This plan would urge the U.S. government to permit the same lucrative (tobacco) price-support income for high-lysine amaranth or triticale in addition to high-lysine corn. In addition, the U.S. government could itself save billions in health care by providing free, nicotine-containing gum or "quitters' cough drops' to help those addicted to the health-destroying habit of smoking.

For convenience we have dubbed the above "the Indiana Plan,' because Indiana is important in lysine research. Dr. Richard Griffith of Indiana University, formerly of the Eli Lilly Company, has probably done more extensive work on the beneficial uses of lysine for humans than any other scientist in the country. Dr. Arthur Norins, head of the dematology department at the Indiana University School of Medicine, has published on the use of lysine for treating herpes problems. Meanwhile, the Benjamin Franklin Literary & Medical Society has just received notice that its paper on the results of the lysine experiment with AKR-strain leukemia mice has been accepted for publication in the medical journal Anticancer Research.

The Benjamin Franklin Literary & Medical Society will sponsor a twoday lysine symposium with Indiana University and Purdue University in February. Anyone interest in attending should contact Frank Jones, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

Photo: (Above and opposite page) Just as were leaving the camp on the second day, a starving family appeared, seemingly from nowhere. They were wrapped in dusty, gray rags, and the mother looked twice her stated age of 37. Her husband, the father of their four children, looked like the hero in a film version of a biblical drama.

The children with broomstick-thin little legs and large knees stood planted in one spot. You had the feeling they didn't dare sit down for fear they wouldn't be able to get up again. Even in their starved condition, they were beautiful and the father was handsome (right).

Photo: Kwashiorkor caused by a protein deficiency is a fatal disease for children. As in AIDS, they die from measles, cholera, an infection or anything else that comes along.

Photo: This child was very ill with kwashiorkor. Note the skinny arms but swollen legs, feet and face. The child refused to eat anything and would have died soon without care. Four and one-half weeks later, the child is eating and the swelling is gone.

Photo: (Above) Tom and Beth Fellows, the on-site coordinators of Food for the Hungry, Ethiopian guide Negussie and Dr. Tetsunao Yamamori, the president of Food for the Hungry. (Right) Victims of kwashiorkor.

Photo: Beggars sit at the entrance to a Coptic church. Ethiopians beg at the church only as a last resort, for they consider it taking money from God.

Photo: Many crosses are associated with the Coptic Church, originally the Christian church of Egypt. The beautiful one on right was the Fellows' gift to the SatEvePost Museum.

Photo: The Rev. Alex Fellows, director of Ethiopia's Sudan Interior Mission (SIM), and his son, Tom, of Food for the Hungry, stand by the four-wheel-drive Toyota that carries supplies over the rugged terrain.

Photo: This Coptic church overlooking Addis Ababa, part of the palace compound of Emperor Menelik II, was abandoned when Empress Taitu persuaded the emperor to move to the hot springs in the valley.

Photo: Peter Michael visits a church of the Sudan Interior Mission, a group engaged in famine relief as well as vocational training, literacy programs and rural development.

Photo: (Above) Instead of high-lysine corn, some African farms produce tobacco. (Left) Camp director Ali Muhammad Ali, newly aware that smoking is harmful, accepts Nicorette (a chewing gum containing nicotine) and promises never to smoke again.

Photo: The statue of Lenin in Addis Ababa makes up for its lack of aesthetics in sheer mass. The huge, imposing likeness is "headed for the airport. You see, he is leaving,' joked one Ethiopian to the children who played near the statue.

Photo: The Rev. Larry Jones, founder of Feed the Children, checks the status of an undernourished Ethiopian child at one of the country's many refugee camps. Jones started the program five years ago after preaching at a funeral for a child who died from starvation.

Photo: This baby suffers from protein deficiency, or more specifically, lack of essential amino-acid building blocks. Without adequate nutrition she would be doomed to retarded physical and mental development.

Photo: What a difference high-lysince corn makes! The smaller pig (left) was raised on regular corn. His litter mate (right) received a diet of high-lysine corn. The former was obviously lysine deficient.

Photo: The same child, after being fed a diet of high-lysine corn, appears to be well. She was restored to health by an increase in essential amino acids that had been missing in her previous diet of regular corn.
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Author:SerVaas, Cory
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1985
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