Dar es Salaam. Education is the key to reducing malnutrition in children under five, President Jakaya Kikwete said yesterday as he launched a national campaign to promote a balanced diet.
Tanzania has three million malnourished children, he said, mainly because of poor eating habits and lack of knowledge of the kind of food children need. Ironically, most of the children live in rural areas where there is ample food.
The campaign named “Good Nutrition is the Foundation of the Country Economic Development: Play Your Part”, will be driven by a campaign that also aims at encouraging firms in the food business to add vitamins and other nutrients to their products.
Said the President: “Lack of awareness on nutrition at the family level, accompanied by poor beliefs, is a problem because people have food but they do not know how to plan their meals. Education is the most important thing they need, especially in rural areas where they have access to a wide variety of foods compared to urban dwellers--who have to purchase food.”
Experts who spoke with The Citizen this week also cited inadequate breastfeeding, poor medical facilities and poverty as other factors that contribute to malnutrition.
The launch of the campaign yesterday comes amidst rising concerns by both the government and nutrition experts about the rising levels of the condition.
The national nutrition coordinator at World Vision, Ms Debora Niyeha, said this week that about half of Tanzania’s workforce will suffer a mental crisis in the next 20 years due to stunting that affects the body and brain.
According to the ministry of Health and Social Welfare, Tanzania spends Sh1.16 trillion every year treating malnutrition-related illnesses affecting children under five. That amount goes to treating malnutrition-related diseases such as diarrhoea and malaria and is equivalent to 2.6 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product.
This expenditure is higher than the annual budget of the ministry of Health and Social Welfare for the 2013/14 financial year, standing at Sh753.8 billion.
Mr Kikwete said that whereas malnutrition is a global problem, developing countries such as Tanzania are most afflicted because of unsuitable eating habits and inadequate nutritious food. The outcomes are seen more in children because they get affected even before they are born if their mothers are also under-nourished.
The Deputy Minister for Health and Social Welfare, Dr Seif Rashid, said poor nutrition in pregnant mothers is a prime source of disability in children. About half of stunted children are at risk of death because their immunity is so compromised that they cannot fight disease. Stunted children are also prone to non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
Said Dr Rashid: “Since the effect of poor nutrition in expectant mothers can be transmitted to unborn babies, malnutrition has been one of the causes of disabilities in children. About 42 per cent of children under five are stunted to the extent that half of them may die before they can begin to grow.”
Tanzania also has to contend with anaemia and Vitamin A deficiency in children. Anaemia alone reduces national productivity by 17 per cent and contributes to poverty. He added: “Many of children under five are Vitamin A deficient and some suffer from anaemia, which is also common in women.”
A representative of Partnership for Nutrition in Tanzania (Panita), Ms Joyce Kinabo, called on the government to take a broad view in addressing the situation, including creating a ministry to deal specifically with nutrition. Such a move, she added, would save many lives.
The President gave awards to people and firms that have contributed to efforts to fight malnutrition since independence. Mama Maria Nyerere received an award on behalf of First President Julius Nyerere. Former President Ali Hassan Mwinyi also received an award. Firms that add nutrients to their products include Azam, Bidco, Azania and Murza Oil.