Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Micronutrients deficiency: Stunting Nigeria’s ‘intellect, strength, and vitality’

Over a decade ago, the World Bank publicly announced that vitamin deficiencies deprive one billion people worldwide of their intellect, strength, and vitality. Of this population, pregnant women and children are often and unfortunately the most affected.

During pregnancy and lactation, the micronutrient level for certain micronutrients like iron can substantially affect the outcome of a woman’s pregnancy. After birth, the amount of micronutrients in a woman’s body will impact her ability to provide quality breast milk to her child, which directly impacts a child’s potential for learning and its resistance to infections.

In Nigeria, low micronutrient levels among pregnant women is a leading contributor to infant low birth weight; not only stunting a child’s ability to thrive in childhood and adulthood, but also leading to increased risks for adult chronic diseases.

A major pitch to end this health crisis in Nigeria is the implementation of three low-cost micronutrient programs including food fortification, supplementation and education.

Food fortification by nature is the process of adding vitamins and minerals to a staple food eaten by a majority of the population. During the food processing stage, vitamins and minerals beneficial to child development are added to the staple foods and distributed to the population.

Recent studies in Southern and Western Africa show that adding vitamin A to sugar and vegetable oil can lower the risk and severity of maternal mortality, anaemia, and long-term affects of HIV/AIDS. Just a teaspoon of oil or sugar enriched with vitamin A taken twice a day can boost a child’s immune system and deliver about one-third of their daily needs for vitamin A—potentially saving their lives.

The second step, food supplementation, supplies vulnerable groups, primarily young women and children, with tablets, capsules and syrups enriched with vitamins and minerals. Though an effective method of supplying nutrients, supplementation presents a big challenge of finding a reliable delivery system to reach the most vulnerable and poorest populations.

The third step is educating Nigerians to make small changes in their diets and eating habits to protect themselves—and their children—against vitamin deficiencies. For this task, the Ministry of Health holds a responsibility for educating people about the benefits of food fortification through media campaigns, public health messages, and nutrition education programmes through primary and secondary schools. Private organizations and companies are also responsible for educating the public about the immense benefits of fortification in their advertising and marketing campaigns.

A challenge of this step is that better diets often require better income, and promoting healthier eating is not always easy. Many people prefer to stick to the cheaper foods they are familiar with and resist new additions to their meals. But, according to Carol Bellamy of UNICEF, “It is no longer a question of treating severe deficiency in individuals. It is a question of reaching out to whole populations to protect them against the devastating consequences of even moderate forms of vitamin and mineral deficiency.” For this to happen, an enormous commitment from the government, media, private organizations, schools, and the general public is needed to not only enrich foods with essential vitamins but to change the mindsets of the Nigerian public to embrace the benefits that such food fortification programs could provide.

By Amanda Hale

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