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Experts proffer solutions to Nigeria’s malnutrition burden
By Abiose Adelaja Adams
Experts from the federal Ministries of Health and Agriculture and Rural Development, as well as Nestle Nigeria, have said that nutrition-related diseases continue to be an issue of public health importance in Nigeria as it slows economic growth and perpetuates poverty through direct losses in productivity.
Such losses they said come from poor physical status, poor cognitive function and deficits in schooling as well as losses owing to increased health care costs.
The researchers, who took turns to educate the media at the 4th annual Nestle Creating Shared Value workshop in Lagos on Friday, said food fortification has thus become necessary in the face of staggering malnutrition statistics which reveal that Nigeria is one of the 36 countries in the world that account for 90 per cent of the world burden of malnutrition.
“Food fortification is the practice of deliberately increasing the content of an essential micronutrient in a food so as to improve the nutritional quality of the food supply and provide a public health benefit with minimal risk to health and it has the dual advantage of being able to deliver nutrients to large segments of the population without requiring radical changes in food consumption patterns,” said Chris Isopkwunwu, head of Nutrition of the federal ministry of Health.
He noted that food fortification is often more cost-effective than other strategies, adding that it equally has the potential to improve the nutritional status of a large proportion of the population, both poor and wealthy.
Further underscoring its importance, he said that a lack of it leads to micronutrient deficiency.
“Statistics has it that 18 million children are born mentally impaired due to maternal iodine deficiency. It is the leading cause of mental retardation and it decreases intelligent quotient by 15 points,” he said.
Similarly, he observed, vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness and it causes 1 million premature deaths a year and a lack of it also causes compromised immune system.
He listed the micronutrients of public health importance as iron, iodine, vitamin A, zinc, folic acid, vitamin B complexes, adding that Iron deficiency causes the deaths of 136,000 women and children annually, while I.6 million people suffer reduced productivity due to Iron deficiency.
Isopkwunwu classified malnutrition as under-nutrition, micronutrient deficiency and over nutrition, while he puts fortification in different classes namely, voluntary, mandatory, home fortifications and bio- fortification.
A consultant and technical advisor on processing, products and nutrition at the federal ministry of Agriculture, Omo Ohiokpehai, spoke extensively on the projects of the ministry such as fortifying cassava, maize and sweet potato with vitamin A, since these are food low in micronutrients.
“Bio-fortification is not genetical modification. It is only cross-breeding plants and varieties. It is one of the solutions to malnutrition.”
She observed that although processing can reduce the vitamins, especially during garification (the process of making garri from cassava), but added that “it will not totally destroy it as a yellow cassava (bio-fortified) is still richer in nutrients than a non-fortified one.” According to her, bio-fortification is a global initiative funded by Gates Foundation and made possible by partners in Nigeria such as Harvest Plus.
She encouraged the audience to look out for the bio-fortified cassava/garri, maize and sweet potatoes. “If you go to the website of Harvest Plus, they can give you directions online as they do online marketing” she said
Meanwhile, Isokpunwu said the Health ministry saw the need for fortification in 2013 and thus in January 2015 began a pilot study on home food fortification.
“The FMOH introduced a guideline for multiple micronutrient powders. It contains 15 micronutrients in a sachet that can be added to the food, without changing the taste of the food or altering its colour.”
According to him, the Multiple Micronutrient Powder study is at the formative stage now and it is being carried out in two states – Adamawa and Benue.
“These are states with one of the worst malnutrition indexes in the country. So our partners, which are UNICEF and the states governors, have shown willingness. We have identified three local governments where this will take place, after which we can then scale up.”
He is hopeful that this will succeed as Nigeria is not the first country where such will be done.
Explaining further, he said that “the powder will be added to the meals of children, but the outcome of the study will show us how best to administer it and what platforms works best, whether it be through hospitals or during the maternal and child health weeks.”
The 2013 National Demographic Health Survey, NDHS, shows that wasting, stunting and underweight in children are at the highest in the North east and North west of the country.
Other micronutrient deficiency control measures include deworming, dietary diversification and food supplementation.