Posted by Brigham and Women's Hospital December 12, 2012
Janet Rich-Edwards, ScD, MPH, Director of Developmental Epidemiology in the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology is a lucky woman. While many researchers never leave the laboratory or clinic, her work has taken her to one of the most scenic and remote areas of the world. Since 2004, Rich-Edwards has traveled to Mongolia, nicknamed “Land of Eternal Blue Sky”, to conduct research that has helped shape the country’s public health policies and improve the lives of its three million residents.
Her path to conduct research in Mongolia was an unexpected one. Rich-Edwards wanted to study whether cow’s milk consumed by children affected their hormone levels and puberty. However, because dairy products are so widely consumed in the US, it wasn’t possible to find a comparison group of children who consume low amounts of dairy.
Instead, a colleague recommended that Rich-Edwards conduct her research in Mongolia, where there is a large population of children who tolerate milk but lack access to it. In the course of their research in Mongolian children, Rich-Edwards and her colleagues discovered that Mongolia has a high prevalence of rickets, a bone disorder caused by lack of vitamin D. They knew that this vitamin D deficiency was due to the extreme latitude where Mongolians live combined with an absence of vitamin D in their diets. Unlike developed countries like the US, foods such as milk and breakfast cereal have been not been fortified with vitamin D in Mongolia.
To address this deficiency, Rich-Edwards and her colleagues launched the “Blue Sky” study. They found that giving small doses of vitamin D in a daily pill or fortified milk was very effective at increasing vitamin D levels.
Mongolian public health officials were surprised at the extent of vitamin D deficiency among Mongolian children and how easy it was to correct it. As a result, Mongolia’s Ministry of Health has issued guidelines to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture recommending that national food fortification programs include vitamin D. Rich-Edwards and her colleagues expect to see a drop in the rickets once this program is implemented.
The work of Rich-Edwards has made a lasting impact on the people of Mongolia but they have left an impression on her as well. Mongolians, she observes, are an endearing people who love to laugh and sing. She yearns to go back as she fondly recalls huddling with Mongolian colleagues in a dwelling called a yurt, drinking fermented mare’s milk and singing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in their respective languages.
– MMQ, Jamie R