UBC Prof. Judy McLean and her students help Rwanda launch Africa’s first national home-based nutritional fortification program for children
When Canadian mothers feed their young children, assurances that their food contains the required vitamins and minerals seem almost unnecessary.
But for mothers in Rwanda, where the prevalence of anemia among children six to 23 months is 70 per cent, malnutrition is a daily struggle.
Determined to change this staggering figure is Judy McLean, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems. McLean is travelling back to Rwanda this month to launch a landmark national program that will allow mothers to fortify their children’s food with vitamins and minerals from home.
Targeting the first 1,000 days
The initiative provides small sachets of Micronutrient Powders (MNP) that are mixed with local foods to improve the quality of children’s diets. Because the diet in Rwanda’s subsistence farming communities is mostly plant-based, children are not getting the micronutrients they need to support their growth, which has long lasting effects on cognitive and physical development.
“We target the most vulnerable period of life, the first ‘1,000 days,’” says McLean. “Infants are permanently impacted by iron and other micronutrient deficiencies, and you can’t compensate later in life for what occurs during this period of time.”
With financial support from the Dutch government and a green light from Rwanda’s Ministry of Health, UNICEF, and NGO partners, Rwanda will become the first country in Africa to have a national home-based fortification program for young children. The scale-up will start with 250,000 children in 16 of Rwanda’s 31 districts.
McLean works with UBC International Nutrition students, who travel to Rwanda on three-month placements as part of their program requirements. The UBC students work with Rwandan students to train community health workers on how to use the MNP, who then train the mothers.
Scaling up to reduce hunger
A one-year pilot study showed the MNP reduced the rate of anemia and increased the level of hemoglobin in the target age group. With the scale-up, the goal is to reduce the prevalence of anemia to under 20 per cent.
McLean says the Rwandan government has plans to embed the project’s cost into the country’s universal health care system. It’s expected to come at an increased cost of $2.50 each year for mothers who pay into the country’s health care plan, she adds. Within the next two years, the Ministry of Health is expected to run the MNP program independently.
Plans to expand
It’s a model that McLean hopes will work in other sub-Saharan African and Asian countries, including Zambia, Cameroon and Laos, where her team is currently working on similar initiatives with UNICEF.
“Nutrition plays a vital role in the productivity and development of a country’s workforce,” she says. “Change the diet of young children and you change a nation’s future.”
For more information on the Micronutrient Project, click here