19 October 2015
As World Food Day is marked around the globally, it gives us a good opportunity to take stock of the situation in our own country, The Gambia. We can celebrate our successes and face up to the future challenges. In the past few days the MRC has been meeting with representatives of government to share these challenges and map the route forward.
The year 2015 marks the end of the Millennium Development Goals in which the number of underweight children formed a key metric by which to assess improvements in poverty and hunger. So how have we done? The good news is that progress has certainly been made and in most regions of the world the target of halving the proportion of underweight children will be met – but sadly not in Africa where progress has stagnated and, due to population growth rates, there are actually more undernourished children in Africa than there were at the start of the millennium.
The underweight index has now been replaced by targets related to stunting because these give a better picture of long-term nutrition. Stunting rates in Gambian children have halved over the past 40 years (from over 50% to about 24%) but according to the National Nutrition Agency (NaNA) the latest nationwide surveys show that it is stuck at that level. We need to push forward. And it has now become abundantly clear that we cannot achieve this by food alone. Children are unable to use nutrients properly if they have an intestine damaged by infections.
The message is that nutrition interventions must be accompanied by interventions to clean up the child’s environment Said Prof Andrew Prentice,Theme leader,Nutrition Theme. This in turn means that we need to improve housing conditions and ensure easy access to copious quantities of clean water – both for drinking and for washing. The new Sustainable Development Goals announced at the UN this month aim to reduce the number of stunted children in the world by 40% from the current 162million to under 100million by 2025. This is a tall order, but The Gambia has a good prospect of achieving its own 40% reduction.
Last week The Gambia hosted a workshop of the III World Congress of Public Health Nutrition (WCPHN) hosted by the Vice-President, Her Excellency Aja Dr Isatou Njie-Saidy with the Minister of Health and Social Welfare, The Hon Dr Omar Sey. Her Excellency championed the Presidential vision to achieve food and nutrition security for the whole population. This challenge chimes with the focus of the 2015 World Food Day: ‘From Farm to Plate, make food safe’ and it is pleasing to note that The Gambia is ahead of many African nations in having an established agency for food safety.
The past year has also been an exciting one for the Nutrition Theme at MRC Unit The Gambia. Among many notable achievements we were able to make some key breakthroughs in the field of epigenetics. Epigenetics is a process by which the genes we inherit from our parents can be modified with lifelong effects on health. Our demonstration that a mother’s diet at the time of conception has profound effects on her baby’s epigenome was the first such demonstration in humans and consequently received global media coverage. As we look forward to the future we are very hopeful that – with further research – we will be able to recommend an ideal diet for women planning to have a baby and that this would help to ensure much better pregnancy outcomes and lifelong health.
Read more about the III World Congress of Public Health Nutrition (WCPHN) on the AllAfrica Website on: http://allafrica.com/stories/201510081844.html.