The SUN will shine on us all some day: Leadership critical to ending under-nutrition in Africa

Saturday June 6 2015

Margaret Kenyatta, First Lady of the Republic of Kenya, is also the Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) champion in Kenya. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH |

Margaret Kenyatta, First Lady of the Republic of Kenya, is also the Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) champion in Kenya. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

By Margaret Kenyatta

East African government representatives, the donor community, the private sector, researchers, the United Nations and civil society organisations signatory to the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement — which implements nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive interventions and strategies to address malnutrition — gathered in Dar es Salaam last week to launch the Global Nutrition Report for East Africa.

This first Global Nutrition Report comes at a time when the developing countries, particularly in Africa, are grappling with both communicable and non-communicable diseases. The cost of failing to meet such challenges is high: Premature death, pressure on health systems and a severe drag on economic progress.

However, despite the advances made on the causes of malnutrition and how to address the problem, we have not given nutrition matters enough attention as individuals, planners, leaders and even governments.

By focusing on malnutrition as a global challenge, this report provides countries with an unprecedented opportunity to galvanise positive actions and resources to ensure all children are born healthy and achieve their full development potential as human beings.

This report also gives us hope about how quickly malnutrition can be reduced and sustained. The report calls for a renewed commitment to improving nutrition as part of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and calls on donors, national governments and other partners to meet their commitments in this area.

As we all know, investment in nutrition for the first 1,000 days determines the person’s entire life cycle. In addition, improvements in nutritional status are likely to drive many sustainable development outcomes in a given community.

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What happens to children during their pre-natal stage and their early years can last a lifetime. Infants born to underweight mothers are more likely to develop certain diseases and conditions in their adolescence and adulthood.

These conditions include preventable diseases such as diabetes, heart ailments and obesity. Infant deaths are significantly related to the poor nutrition and health of their mothers prior to and during pregnancy and soon after the post-partum period.

For children under two years, malnutrition, as both a consequence and a cause of poverty, has a particularly profound effect. Specific nutrition interventions such as exclusive breastfeeding, timely complementary feeding, iron folate and vitamin A and zinc supplementation are critical for all newborns.

Other interventions include handwashing, deworming, food fortification and management of moderate and severe acute malnutrition, all of which have the potential for quickly transforming the malnutrition data captured in this report.

The world today has become one global village and a country’s position in the global economy depends on the health and competencies of its people. Those competencies are set early in life and nutrition plays a critical role in this context.

Nutrition investments are cost effective, as several studies have shown. These investments include eliminating malnutrition among expectant mothers that could reduce disabilities among their infants by almost one third.

Similarly, breastfed children are at least six times more likely to survive in the early months than non-breastfed children; in the first six months of life, they are six times less likely to die from diarrhoea and 2.4 times less likely to die from acute respiratory infections.

Furthermore, exclusive breast-feeding has the potential to reduce infant mortality by 13 per cent and morbidity by 70 per cent. Breast-feeding is also associated with improved child development. It is also estimated that optimum complementary feeding will reduce mortality by a further 8 per cent.

The rapid and emerging trends of non-communicable diseases are also closely associated with nutrition and lifestyle. Practical measures such as fortifying widely consumed staple foods is recognised as a relatively low-cost strategy with significant public health benefits.

We must also redouble our efforts to address the other underlying drivers of good nutrition such as food supply, clean water and sanitation, health care and education.

Investing in girl-child education in particular is directly related to nutrition because it tends to delay girls’ first pregnancy and is an important part of empowering girls in general.

As African leaders, we have the responsibility to give every African child an equal start in life and therefore to ensure access to nutrition for all. If we don’t think it’s important and if we don’t act, why should anyone else act?

I remain committed to provide leadership in overcoming this malnutrition crisis facing our region by continuously profiling and urging for more concerted policy actions and resources.

As the SUN champion in Kenya, it is my hope that nutrition will take its rightful place in policy and programme prioritisation. If there is anything we owe to our children and future generations it is the firm commitment and action to transform and model ways of sustaining a healthy human race.

Margaret Kenyatta, First Lady of the Republic of Kenya, is also the Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) champion in Kenya. The above is extracted from her remarks during the Global Nutrition Report East Africa Launch last week in Dar es Salaam.

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