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14.09.2005 Health

Women and children, victims of malnutrition

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A GNA Feature by Mrs Linda Asante Agyei

Accra, Sept 14, GNA - It is gloomy and painful, but factual. A number of women and children are becoming victims of a silent killer - micronutrient deficiencies.

It is equally true that women, who are malnourished and anaemic, are more likely to face reproductive health problems, which lead to maternal and infant deaths.

Anaemia in pregnancy in Ghana affects 65 per cent of women and available figures indicate that about 20 per cent of maternal deaths are related to anaemia.

Ghana is fortunate to be producing all the food that have all the nutritional values that one needs to grow. However, the country still faces the problem of malnutrition causing stunt growth and anaemia in children, pregnant and lactating mothers.

There have been cases where deaths have occurred in children below five years especially in the deprived rural areas as a result of malnutrition.

This problem should, therefore, be seen as critical if the nation were to achieve the desired economic development. The worst hit of this serious problem are the three Northern Regions. According to the 2003 Ghana Demographic and Health Survey (GDHS), nutrition indicators for the three Regions combined indicated that levels of underweight, wasting and stunting were above the national averages, and this is very serious.

According to Mrs Mary Quaye, Head of the School Health Education Programme of the Ghana Education Service, deficiencies of important minerals and vitamins like vitamin A, iodine and iron are very common among women and children.

Nearly 77 per cent of children are suffering from iron deficiency and this translates into about eight out of 10 children seen every day in the homes and schools.

She said inadequate quality of diet in combination with inappropriate child feeding habits was contributing to the malnutrition problem.

The GDHS states that 22 per cent of children below five years are underweight and seven per cent are wasted (those who are thin). Those who suffer under-nutrition for a very long time and are, therefore, shorter than what is normal for their ages is 30 per cent and this is frightening.

"The meaning is that one out of every three children in Ghana is suffering from effects of long-term inadequate food intake. It is even more worrying when one considers that severe childhood malnutrition has fatal consequences as well as being the underlying cause of death in many affected children.

"Good nutrition is recognised as the only foundation for good health and is very essential for the growth of children into healthy, knowledgeable and productive adults.

"It is, therefore, sad to hear that these children will not be able to attain their full potential, causing them to perform poorly in school and hence contribute to the high school dropouts."

Isn't this an irony that women play a very critical and important role in childcare and home management and are very much involved in agricultural production, yet poor nutrition is high in their midst? Statistics indicate that as much as nine per cent of women in child bearing age are malnourished whilst 45 per cent are anaemic.

While malnutrition impacts on their health, it also influences their ability to perform their roles in child care, home management as well as their productivity in agricultural and other income generating activities".

It is interesting to note that nutrition has another aspect, which is over-nutrition. It is sad to note that this is on the increase in urban, higher socio-economic groups and this has adverse and sometimes fatal consequences. This is to explain that close to one out of every two women being reported in these areas is over weight. It is due to these serious problems that GHS has initiated an education fund code named "The Adognia Education Fund" as part of their intervention programmes to address the persistent poor nutrition situation in the country. The Fund is named after Adognia, a community in the Upper East Region.

There are 30 Food Supplementary Feeding Centres and the Upper East Region is one of the beneficiaries.

The novelty and uniqueness of the Adognia Food Supplementary Feeding Centre is that they are linked to pre-school and basic child education to address their problems of education.

With such an initiative, GHS would be using one stone to kill two birds, that is education and nutritional health of these children The education fund, initiated by the GHS with support from the World Food Programme seeks to address and control the problem of poor nutrition, low enrolment of children of school-going age.

The fund, which also forms part of Nutrition Unit of the GHS's Supplementary Feeding Programme for 30 selected feeding sectors, has created an environment that allows children of school-going age at the feeding centre to go through primary to junior secondary schools and be able to write the examination with their colleagues in the south of the country.

Professor Agyeman Badu Akosa, Director-General of the GHS, said the Service was doing this in collaboration with other stakeholders adding that the commitment shown by the stakeholders indicated that it would be sustained.

He said what needed to be done most was the mobilisation of financial, technical and political support for its implementation. Prof. Akosa noted that the level of poverty in the country, especially those in the rural communities, was so extreme that parents could not afford one balanced meal a day.

"We should not always rely on others to come to our aid when there is a problem or we are in crises. We should also learn to support ourselves or else things will not work out for us."

Prof. Akosa noted that the fund would not only serve the people of Adognia but other schools in other regions as well.

He said good nutrition was paramount to the development of every child into a healthy, knowledgeable and productive adult.

A survey conducted by the Ghana Sustainable Change Project (GSCP) throughout the country found that nutrition had a low profile among political leaders, decision-makers and the general public. It also observed that there were many misperceptions about nutritional problems and lack of human and financial resources directed towards improving nutrition.

If the children of this country are to grow healthy and meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by 2015 then the nutritional status of the people should be addressed and improved.

Ghanaians need to work much harder since inadequate commitment and little attention had been paid to nutritional problems in the past. What is actually lacking is a strong political commitment and bold new investment strategy in nutrition since the situation is critical. Adequate investment in nutrition would also avoid high rates of child mortality, tragic dulling of mental capacity and colossal losses in economic productivity.

This issue should be treated as a national disaster and be given all the needed push to reverse the situation since prevention is always better cure.