Tackling malnutrition and zoonotic diseases in Timor-Leste

04 July 2024
Researchers test water samples as part of the BEN study examining the relationship between foodborne gastrointestinal infections in Timorese infants.

New ACIAR-funded research will seek to understand the link between animal-sourced foods and childhood stunting in Timor-Leste to reduce the impact of zoonotic diseases on rural communities. 

Led by researchers from the Australian National University (ANU), the Bacteria Enteropathy and Nutrition study (BEN) will examine the relationship between foodborne gastrointestinal infections in Timorese infants and how improved food safety practices can enhance health and wellbeing.  

Timor-Leste is one of the smallest nations in the Indo-Pacific region. It faces critical challenges in food and nutritional security, with infant malnutrition and stunting rates among the highest in the world. 

ACIAR Project Leader from ANU, Dr Samantha Colquhoun, said the 4-year research initiative will fill a significant knowledge gap and benefit the health and development of Timorese children. 

‘Malnutrition in Timor-Leste poses a significant risk to children under the age of 5, being responsible for high rates of child stunting and almost half of all deaths in this vulnerable age group,’ said Dr Colquhoun.

‘The new research effort will provide an important understanding of how foodborne diseases and food preparation impact children’s health and wellbeing.

‘As women typically prepare food in Timorese households, gender is a central theme to this research. We will explore how increasing women's knowledge and capacity can lead to improved nutrition and food safety practices,’ added Dr Colquhoun. 

The ANU-led research team in Timor-Leste will conduct a bacteria enteropathy and nutrition study over the next 4 years.
The ANU-led research team in Timor-Leste will conduct a bacteria enteropathy and nutrition study over the next 4 years. Image: ANU/ Menzies School of Health Research

The Timor-Leste BEN joint project lead from the Menzies School of Health Research, Mr Salvador Amaral, said the research is vital for Timor-Leste and aligns with the Government’s national health priorities. 

‘The study seeks to understand the underlying causes, effects, and potential solutions for malnutrition in this vulnerable population. Addressing malnutrition is not just a professional responsibility but all our responsibility to secure a healthier future for our children.’

The study will extend its support to nutritionally vulnerable women and children and involve a broader family and communal group. By engaging existing systems and communities, the project will empower families with knowledge and resources to provide optimum nutrition and improve children’s growth rates.

ACIAR Research Program Manager, Livestock Systems, Dr Anna Okello said the A$2.1 million project will take a One Health approach to gain a better understanding of how zoonotic disease impacts human health. 

‘One Health recognises that the health of humans, animals, and the broader environment are all inherently linked. By acknowledging this connection and tackling challenges with a wide, holistic approach, we can be more effectively reduce the burden of zoonotic diseases.

‘We’re not going to see optimal health in human populations if our agrifood systems are broken, or our environment is polluted, or if our veterinary services are not adequately resourced to control diseases in the systems that produce our food.

‘There’s growing evidence that chronic exposure to infectious disease-causing enteric pathogens may be linked to childhood malnutrition and impaired development, particularly affecting those in lower socio-economic groups.’ 

A researcher collecting samples as part of the BEN study.
A researcher collecting samples as part of the BEN study. Image: ANU / Menzies School of Health Research

Dr Okello added that the new ACIAR investment will assist Timor-Leste, one of Australia’s closest regional neighbours, to improve testing and surveillance for these pathogens. 

'The project team will work closely with our local research partners to enable the Timorese government to test food and water samples for basic microbiological parameters, which serve as quality and safety indicators. The Ministry of Health’s (MoH) Food Safety Department will also be funded to use food testing to assess contamination levels in both household and community settings.’

The new initiative will also invest in developing the scientific capacity of the Department of Surveillance at MoH. This will allow for more widespread tracking of enteric infection cases, improving the response and management of outbreaks. 

‘We hope these initiatives will reduce Timorese’s exposure to zoonotic pathogens and make a significant difference in the lives of children and families in Timor-Leste, alleviating the effects of malnutrition, foodborne diseases, and improve their long-term on health and well-being,’ said Dr Okello. 

Led by ANU, the 4-year research project will work in partnership with the Menzies School of Health Research and Timor-Leste’s MoH and Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Additionally, MoH, UNICEF, WHO, and TOMAK will form a partnership to advise on food safety and security, especially in the context of child malnutrition in the country.

Learn more via the ACIAR website.