Magazine article New African

Stunting an Avoidable Evil

Magazine article New African

Stunting an Avoidable Evil

Article excerpt

Professor Ruth Oniang'o is the first in Africa to hold a professorship on nutrition--as an adjunct professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition and Science Policy, Tufts University. For the last three decades she has been a vocal continental and global voice on food security and nutrition, particularly in her campaign against stunting. She discusses all aspects of this serious handicap with Wanjohi Kabukuru

Professor Ruth Oniang'o has no doubt that the prime cause of the phenomenon known as "stunting", which affects large parts of Africa, is food insecurity.

"What does food and nutrition security mean?" she asks, and explains: "It simply means 'ail people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.' When this does not happen, you get food insecurity and that leads to stunting cases."

"Stunting is a very serious issue," she says, "not just for Africa, but as a global concern." When you are stunted, she says, the brain is stunted too. "The formation of the brain starts in the uterus; if the mother is undernourished, the effect is passed to the infant. In other words stunting is directly related to and connected with reproductive and maternal health."

She explains that the condition gets worse if diets continue to be poor and sanitation and hygiene are also affected. "Your brain grows as your body grows. Stunting is terrible as it means that those affected will never reach their full physical and mental capabilities and potential."

She says, with some heat, that the incidence of any malnourished child in Africa equates to hunger, inadequate and inappropriate food and the lack of "seriousness in any government that cares about the future of its population. It is just wrong. Malnutrition is the single greatest contributor to child mortality. Stunting is terrible as by the age of two years old, it becomes irreversible."

Implementation is the key

Focusing on the situation in Kenya, Professor Oniang'o says that what needs to be done to avoid this is well documented. "We have a robust food and nutrition policy. I know that because I was right at the centre when we developed the National Food and Nutrition Security Policy of 2011."

These policies, she says, are anchored on the universal right to food--touching on children and women's rights. "But very little is being done to attain the objectives of these policies. We even have the Kenya National Nutrition Action Plan 2012 to this year 2017. This action plan," she continues, "identifies 11 strategic objectives and the first two directly deal with improvement of the nutritional status of women of reproductive age, 15-49 years, and improvement of the nutrition status of children under five years of age."

But, she goes on, "I must say we are very good in drafting excellent policies but poor in implementing them. We have well educated Kenyans with amazing talents, but we rarely appreciate their work and grant them the necessary tools to steer some of these great life-changing policies.

"It is one thing to talk about free maternity, but it is a value chain with other factors embedded, it is never a one-off ideal. There are issues of beds in hospitals, ambulance services, availability of medicines, access to dispensaries, infrastructure and even adequate staffing.

"The empowerment of women is very critical in the fight against stunting. When we keep emphasising about women all the time, it is not that we are seeking to discriminate against men. Most of the findings by both the ministries of health and agriculture have found that the proportion of wasted and underweight children is negatively correlated to the level of education, wealth and nutritional status of the mother. …

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