UNICEF leads West, Central African iodine deficiency battle

Dakar- Senegal (PANA) -- All the table salt consumed in West and Central Africa will be iodized by the year 2005 as set by a Special Session of the UN General Assembly in May 2002, affirms Dr Victor Aguayo, nutritional adviser at the regional office of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) here.
The move, says the Spaniard nutrition expert, will be a major step in protecting newborns in the two sub-regions from brain damage and learning ability losses associated with iodine deprivation because their families lack access to iodized salt.
"By 2010 we will reach the virtual elimination of iodine deficiency.
No child in our region will iodine deficient by then because we have the means to avoid iodine deficiency and reduce infant mortality and morbidity," Aguayo said in an interview.
Ending iodine deficiency in the 24 countries covered by the regional UNICEF office, previously based in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, is possible because nearly nine out of 10 households (88%) in Central Africa already consume iodized edible salt and 71% in West Africa, he said in the wake of the launch of a global progress report on vitamin and mineral deficiency.
His optimism is based on the fact that Nigeria and DR Congo, the largest countries in the UNICEF region within his mandate, have already gone beyond 90% in iodising edible salt.
Only a teaspoon of iodine is necessary throughout the life span of an individual.
In spite of the progress in salt iodination, Aguayo expressed concern at the worrying Vitamin and Micronutrient Deficiency (VMD) rates in the two African geographical regions and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
Vitamin and mineral deficiency currently affects a third of sub- Saharan Africa's people, debilitating minds, bodies and the economic prospects of whole nations by impairing hundreds of millions of growing minds and lowering national IQs by 10-15 points.
VMD is also to blame for wholesale damage of immune systems and causes the deaths of more than a million children a year, more than 200,000 serious birth defects annually, and the death of around 60,000 young women a year during pregnancy and childbirth.
Poor diets lacking iodine, zinc, folic acids and Vitamin A, essential micronutrients for health and development of the human body, are to blame for the vitamin deficiency affecting between 40-50% of children in West and Central Africa.
In the same region, 80% of children under the age of two are anaemic due to iron deficiency in their diets.
To reverse this worrying trend, Dr Aguayo works with governments, several UN agencies, international and local NGOs to improve the feeding and complementary practices of infants and young children.
In collaboration with country health and nutrition teams, the UNICEF official encourages the fortification of wheat flour, cooking oil, sugar, and other mass-consumption food items with vitamins and minerals "to increase the intake of those essential elements".
These teams also take measures to ensure that all pregnant women take folic supplements essential for the wellbeing and growth of their foetus and their new-borns and to control malaria.
"Malaria is one of the major causes of anaemia in our region.
The use of preventive treatment and impregnated bed nets are important to prevent the disease," Dr.
Aguayo told PANA.
His main regret is the lack of information on which foods are rich in minerals and vitamins, including fruits and legumes.
Traditional beliefs, some of which discourage mothers from breast-feeding when their infants have diarrhoea, also do a great disservice to infants.
"It is when children have diarrhoea that they need more breast- feeding because they are fighting a disease," says Dr.
Aguayo, who insists the need to equip healthcare workers and communities with the right nutrition information.
He defends the exclusive breast-feeding of children during the first six months because this is the best source of nutrients and gives the protection they need to grow optimally, after which they should be given quality complementary foods.
However, he admits that encouraging exclusive breast-feeding in this era of rising HIV/AIDS infections in Africa is a delicate issue because HIV-positive pregnant mothers could pass the virus to their new-borns.
"If a child is born to a woman who has a HIV-positive test, she should be counselled on the advantage and disadvantages of different kinds of infant feeding practices.
Then she will be in a position to make an informed choice about various options that best suit her needs and those of her child," says the UNICEF nutritionist.
But according to him, breast-feeding needs to be encouraged in West and Central Africa because "95 percent of children in our region are born to mothers who are either HIV-negative, or do not know their HIV status", unlike in East and Southern Africa, where HIV-prevalence rates are very high.
The UNICEF expert expressed concern at the vitamin and micronutrient situation in countries faced with, or just emerging from insurgency, including Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone and several others.
"These situations put families and communities, particularly women and children in physical jeopardy because they die in the process, while the health and development of those who survive is put in jeopardy too.
"In line with our mandate as UNICEF, we are trying to cope with that by supporting women and children in those very difficult situations, most of which are man-made because we have very few typhoons or earthquakes," Aguayo told PANA.
Several initiatives have been launched to expand existing VMD programmes in Africa and to fast-track new initiatives where visible impacts can be realised within the next five years.
They include the African Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency Programme being developed in alliance with the New Partnership for Africa's Development NEPAD) as part of its Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme and Health Strategy.
Its development will be driven by consultations at regional level linked to the regional economic communities and will involve national stakeholders.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) organised its consultation last October in Dakar, Senegal.
Others include the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the Micronutrient Initiative.
But, in the view of informed observers, these initiatives will only bear fruit if the ordinary African is made aware about which foods to take in order to curb the existing hidden malnutrition.

22 november 2004 15:33:00

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