Friday, 14 September 2007

Micronutrients in Africa: Cheap, life-saving, and completely underestimated

In developing countries where malnutrition and lack of clean water are common, pregnant mothers—especially those living with HIV/AIDS—often face birth complications such as pre-term births, fetal deaths, and low fetal birth weight, simply because their bodies lack the basic nutrients to bring another life into this world.

Tragedies like this are easily prevented through the distribution of micronutrients like multivitamins, vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C, and vitamin D. Each of these vitamins has numerous benefits to the human body and reproductive system: vitamin A increases T-cell counts, vitamin B increases antibody count, and vitamin E increases antibody response to T cell dependent vaccines, to name a few of the perks.

In a presentation on micronutrients and child health, Dr. Ramadhani Mwiru of Tanzania’s Harvard-PEPFAR program explained how micronutrients can change the future of childbirth in Africa. A 2002 study in Malawi showed that HIV-positive pregnant women who took vitamin A throughout their pregnancy significantly improved their baby’s birth weight and lowered their risk of anemia. Micronutrients also reduced the risks of mother-to-child-transmission via breastfeeding.

But despite these life-saving factors, micronutrients haven’t yet been incorporated into many African national health policies. Medical clinics aren’t required to hand out micronutrients to pregnant women; and as a result, many clinics don’t provide the necessary nutrients needed to mothers who lack vitamins in their systems.

Rural clinics are the least likely to give out multivitamins or supplements to pregnant women in their care, according to Mwiru. “It’s something that needs to change. Medications for malaria and anemia are routinely given out to patients as part of hospital protocol, so why aren’t micronutrients?” said Mwiru.

A 1999 study in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, showed that the use of multivitamins on HIV-negative pregnant women reduced the prevalence of fetal death; multivitamins also reduced low birth weights and the number of severe pre-term births. With studies proving that micronutrients have positive effects on both HIV-positive and HIV-negative women at very low costs (vitamin A therapy costs about 0.35 USD per patient), Mwiru is hopeful that the Tanzanian government will integrate micronutrients into its national health programs and hospital policies soon.

“There are challenges to making this happen—policy-making involves so much beuracracy. You really have to push for change,” said Mwiru. “But if you have dedicated people working with you who can push, then it can work.”

*Reported by Amanda Hale

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