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Tackling malnutrition will improve health

By Cleopa Mailu | June 28th 2016

Malnutrition is on the rise and a leading global driver of disease. It affects one in three people in multiple forms, including undernourishment, overweight, mineral deficiencies and excess sugar, salt, fat or cholesterol levels.

The 2016 Global Nutrition Report (GNR), released on June 14 provides an independent and annual review of the state of the world’s nutrition. The report shows that 44 per cent of countries with data available (57 out of 129 countries), experience serious levels of both undernutrition, adult overweight and obesity and that despite good progress in some countries, the world is off track to reduce and reverse the trend.

The report highlights the staggering economic costs of malnutrition, estimated at – 11 percent of GDP per year in Africa and Asia, as well as the critical gaps in investments and commitments.

Over the last nine years, major international commitments have been made to reduce undernutrition. The establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 and the UN’s labelling of the coming decade as the ‘Decade of Action on Nutrition’ shows there is renewed awareness and commitment to tackling the varied challenges of malnutrition. At least 12 of the 17 SDGs goals are directly related to nutrition and contain nutrition-related indicators. Kenya has solid evidence of interventions that work to reduce under-nutrition in children.

Much of this is based on the declining rates of stunting, wasting and underweight reported in the latest Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS) 2014. The survey indicates that more than 26 per cent of the children below five years are stunted, down from 35 per cent in the 2008-09 KDHS, 11 per cent are underweight, down from 16 per cent, and 4 per cent are wasted, down from 7 per cent.

Yet, more needs to be done to address regional disparities and escalating nutrition rates. In addition, the challenges of other forms of malnutrition are significant, 28 per cent of Kenyans are either overweight or obese and 45 per cent experience high blood pressure, reported in the first Kenya STEPwise Survey (2015). These place a significant burden on our country’s health and economy.

Kenya has demonstrated significant commitment to meeting nutrition targets. Article 43 (1) (c) of the Constitution recognises nutrition as a human right.

The very inclusion of this article demonstrates the collective will of the people to overcoming the burdens of malnutrition- but we know that the fight doesn’t stop there. The Ministry of Health is keen to ensure that there is appropriate legislation to raise the profile of nutrition coordination. However, legislation and commitment alone are not enough. We need to transform the political commitments for action into on-the-ground actions.

This will require significantly increasing the number and capacity of front-line workers. It will also require sustained support for strategies that promote good maternal nutrition, optimal breastfeeding, appropriate complementary feeding, early detection and management of illness and acute malnutrition; and improved water, sanitation and hygiene behaviours and conditions.

With collective efforts, ending malnutrition is both a credible and achievable goal. However, tackling malnutrition in all forms will require multi-faced actions across multiple sectors.

The global nutrition targets aim to; achieve a 40 percent reduction in the number of children under 5 who are stunted; reduce and maintain wasting in children under 5 at less than 5 percent; see no increase in overweight children under 5 years of age; achieve a 50 percent reduction of anaemia in women of reproductive age; achieve a 30 percent reduction in low birth weight; increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months to at least 50 percent; halt the rise in prevalence of adult overweight, adult obesity and adult type 2 diabetes; achieve a 30 percent reduction in salt intake (in adults). To ensure that we reach these global goals, commitment must be associated with multi-sector investments in areas that affect nutrition, both directly and indirectly.

Action Against malnutrition addresses nutrition on several fronts: identification and diagnosis, treatment and nutritional care, prevention and risk reduction, strengthening capacity and sustainability, research and innovation and political impact

This means that civil society organisations, donors and businesses –as well as Government–need to step up their efforts to direct more of the resources already invested in agriculture, education, food systems, health systems, social protection, and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) towards nutrition.

These investments must also address data gaps, which present a significant roadblock to nutrition progress globally and in Kenya. Recognising and addressing the world’s malnutrition problem as one of the major underlying impediments to eradicating global poverty and economic growth will not only save lives, but also unleash the potential of our people to speed up Kenya’s development agenda

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