Collins helped transform nutrition in famine countries

STEVE COLLINS’ life has always been unusual. His parents were trailblazers in their own ways — his mother one of the world’s first commercial airline pilots, his father a stunt pilot whose tricks included ‘kicking’ a football with the plane’s wing.

He has lived and worked in some unusual places, including North Korea and Rwanda. Qualified as a medical doctor with a PhD in nutrition, he was awarded an MBE at the age of 35 for his work in famine relief. Typically for the dreadlocked doctor, when he got the call to meet the Queen to accept the MBE, he was on the frontlines in Afghanistan — it was the day after 9/11.

A champion rower, he has crossed the Atlantic in a sail boat. He has lived nomadically for most of the last 20 years, often on a sailboat. In 2008, he settled in west Cork.

His isolated location was no barrier to development for Collins, though off the electricity grid, with no road access and no house. He set to it, damming a stream for water, erecting windmills to generate power, building a small wooden house in just three days, and moving 150 tonnes of rock last winter to build a one mile road.

Collins has worked as a medical doctor in all of the worst famines and wars of the 1980s and 1990s — Somalia, South Sudan, Angola, Burundi, Rwanda, Zaire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, North Korea.

In 1992, he was in charge of an adult feeding centre in Somalia. He changed the diets in the centre, and managed to cut the death rate by 75%.

Along with dietary changes, he changed the location of the administered relief. Bringing people together in feeding centres was a disease risk, so Collins initiated giving people food to bring back to their communities, instead of bringing them together in centres. The combination of dietary changes and community-based care is considered to have globally revolutionised treatment of severe acute malnutrition in children, and led to his MBE.

He did similar work in Ethiopia, setting up community-based treatment programmes. With ready-to-use food administered in the community, the process reduced mortality to just 4%.

The UN and the World Health Organisation endorsed the project, and his research, usually written somewhere on a sail boat, has been published in the Lancet and in Nature Medicine.

Now, most governments across Africa are moving towards this community-based model — perhaps his single biggest achievement in famine relief.

It’s also impressive that the ingredients for the ready-to-use famine foods (RUFs) are produced in developing countries. This has reduced costs and stimulated local economies. Collins works is largely done through the organisation he established, Valid International. He has set up Valid Nutrition, which facilitates production of RUFs. (Use of such products has almost quadrupled in the last three years, to more than 35,000 tonnes per year. Dr Collins said recently there may be opportunities for the Irish dairy industry in RUFs.)

In both cases, the administration and the production, local people in developing countries have been empowered, and they are benefiting from this.

According to Collins, “It’s important that the farmers not only grow the ingredients but also that they consume nutritious foods. These include Valid Nutrition foods. Once the young children who become farmers as adults are well nourished, they are fitter and more healthy, and more able to do new things that involve innovation. Literally, they are able to think of new ideas and not necessarily be conservative”.

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