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FAO warns on child malnutrition

By the Indepenent Team

The Global Nutrition Report 2015 was launched on Oct. 30 as part of celebrations to mark the Africa Day of Food Nutrition and Security. The Independent’s Flavia Nassaka spoke to Mohamed AgBendech, the senior nutrition officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations about state of nutrition in Uganda in particular and Africa in general.

What are the major highlights of the report?

Malnutrition in Africa is still a huge burden. While under-nutrition is still very high, the region is also experiencing the rise of overweight and obesity especially among children under  five years and women.  It also highlights the high economic cost of malnutrition. We have new data that shows that in Malawi for example, 10% of the GDP is lost annually because of nutrition-related complications. Another study carried out by the World Bank points out that when we invest in nutritional interventions, we can increase the economic benefit by 13%.  Another key finding in the report is that one in three members of the global population is malnourished, and the problem exists in every country, yet the high-impact interventions available to resolve it are not being implemented due to lack of funds or political pressure. We hope these new evidences could motivate stakeholders to invest in nutrition.

Where does Uganda stand as far as achieving the World Health Assembly nutrition indicators is concerned?

Some countries made progress in tracking nutrition indicators this year. For instance Kenya and Ghana are leading the world on indicators. These countries have success stories that others in Africa can follow. While Kenya has already achieved all the five, Uganda is in the middle position with three out of the five targets achieved. The country, however, has managed to reduce the number of stunted children by 40% and has also reduced childhood wasting.  But even though Uganda is among the eight countries in Africa that are on track, there is need for more efforts in ensuring that they achieve a 50% reduction in the rate of anemia in women of reproductive age, ensure that children are exclusively breast fed for the first six months and also ensure there is no increase in the number of children who are overweight since this is increasingly becoming a global problem. In fact currently, 8% of adults over the age of 20 are obese.

Why are obesity and overweight cases on an increase?

First of all in Africa, being overweight is seen as prestigious. Most people don’t know that this is a major health threat. Obesity is an indicator that one is not eating a balanced diet. You will see most overweight people in urban areas because we have access to fast foods with more fats and sugars.  People here eat less fruits and vegetables and they do less physical exercise.  The prevention of both over and under nutrition is related to diet, so we need to reduce on the consumption of sugars and oils and increase fruits and vegetables. Prevention is not complex.

For Uganda to achieve all the goals, what should be the country’s action points?

Uganda is moving in the right direction with the creation of a multi-sectoral mechanism – an initiative of the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s obvious that each sector has a role to play especially the health and agriculture sector. If nutrition-sensitive interventions in both sectors are combined and implemented, then achieving the indicators won’t take long.  We also launched a communication and advocacy strategy during the stakeholders’ conference. I believe there’s still a big role to play in creating awareness for social protection programmes for instance subsidizing food for vulnerable areas or subsidizing seeds in addition to promoting the food-processing industry, which is still small.  But, Uganda is quite promising. There are many impressing innovative techniques like planting vegetables in plastic bags with the limited land especially in urban areas. If such techniques are encouraged I’m sure, people will have enough nutritious food.

Uganda is the main exporter of food to the neighboring countries. Isn’t it strange that the country is still grappling with malnutrition and its related complications?

It’s partly a question of behavioral change. There’s need for information on how to improve the diets. In Africa, nutrition education programmes are not well implemented. That’s why I think the advocacy strategy that has been launched comes in handy.  But still, the country needs a policy to diversify the production and availability of food. With good policies in place, there will be enough food for the population.

When tackling the malnutrition challenge experts usually focus on children. Aren’t adults affected?

Among adults, women are the most vulnerable. Nutritional needs are not the same for both genders – women actually need more iron than men. Even with obesity, women are more affected than men because they usually don’t engage in physical activity. And the fact that in most African societies, overweight women are held with high regard, they are often reluctant to check their weight. This needs to change because overweight is associated with many cardiovascular diseases.

The recent study by the WHO indicated that processed meats cause cancer. Should people be keen on processed foods?

FAO is working on releasing a statement of its position on this. But I don’t think the region should be worried about it for our meat consumption levels are still very low compared to the developed counterparts say Europe. In most parts of Africa, each person eats less than 20 kg of meat per year yet the World average meat consumption stands at about 41 kg per person per year.  What I should say is that all foods must be taken in moderation. Using alternative foods is very important. In any case for the under- five children, the guidelines for consuming animal products are in place. These should be followed.

But we have no law on food consumption in Uganda yet?

There’s a proposal to change the National Drug Authority into the National Food and Drug Authority to accommodate issues to do with food, food supplements and therapeutic foods. Uganda is just like many African countries with no food laws. Even if there’s are no laws there are so many guidelines and targets to regulate such issues for instance the recently launched Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). You can’t achieve SDG 3 for ensuring healthy lives and promoting wellbeing for all at all ages without checking and specifying the foods people depend on.

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