Health & Fitness

How child malnutrition hurts physical and mental growth

A doctor attends to a sick child. Studies show that stunted children end up underperforming in school which  affects their earning levels in future. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH
A doctor attends to a sick child. Studies show that stunted children end up underperforming in school which affects their earning levels in future. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH 

World over, nations rely on future generations for their prosperity. If well taken care of children grow up to become well-rounded individuals who can contribute effectively to nation building. But this promising future is now under threat due to Kenya’s staggering malnutrition rates.

Based on Ministry of Health (MoH) statistics, 26 per cent of children below five years are stunted (too short for their age) because they do not get sufficient nutrients for optimal physical and mental development.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines stunting as chronic under-nutrition and considers it a major problem since it adversely affects the development of nations.

“When a child is stunted, they appear to be physically short. But this is also an indication that their brain is stunted because it was not able to develop optimally,” said Gladys Mugambi, head of nutrition and dietetics unit at MoH.

She said that any damage to the brain of children below two years old can be reversed by ensuring that they get the right nutrition.

However, when they are over two years the damage becomes permanent and affects children throughout their lives.

Studies show that stunted children end up underperforming in school which affects their earning levels in future.

Countries rely on brains or intellectual capital to spur economic growth and game-changing innovations which tackle various development challenges.

Have better lives

Therefore if the stunting problem is ignored, health experts warn, personal and national development goals will remain largely elusive.

“Free primary education was introduced to give all children a chance to go to school and have better lives. But if their brains are stunted at a young age then they will not reach their full potential. This means that they will also not contribute effectively to our economic development,” said Mugambi.

According to the WHO, nations have a short window of about 1,000 days (from conception until age two) to ensure that children get all required nutrients for proper brain development.

Mothers are advised to be in good health and consume lots of nutrient-rich foods before planning to have a baby and even during pregnancy.

“This will ensure that the unborn child is getting sufficient nutrients for optimal development in the womb,” said Assumpta Ndumi, regional nutrition adviser at Save the Children.

Diets rich in iron guard against premature births which affect children’s growth. Omega 3 rich foods such as fish and other types of sea food help boost brain development and vision in children.

Other key nutrients for pregnant women include calcium, potassium, iodine and vitamins. The WHO recommends that once a baby is born, it should be exclusively breast-fed for the first six months.

“During this period, the milk will provide all nutrients that the child needs in sufficient amounts. You shouldn’t give anything else to the child, even water,” said Ndumi.

The breast milk also guards against infectious diseases such as diarrhoea and pneumonia which are leading causes of infant mortality in Kenya.

When children are sick, their nutrient intake declines since they are unable to feed well.

Ailments such as diarrhoea rapidly deplete nutrients from the body, thus further contributing to the malnutrition problems.

“Good hygiene and childhood vaccines can help families to protect their children from most of these infections,” said Ndumi.

Deworming children is also important as intestinal worms tend to compromise the body’s ability to absorb nutrients effectively, she said.

Ndumi said that the mother should introduce the child to other foods after six months while still breast-feeding until the baby reaches two years.

Nutrient deficiency

To meet nutritional requirements, the child should be slowly introduced to diverse diets comprising of plant based foods (vegetables, fruits and carbohydrates) and animal sourced foods (milk, eggs, fish and meat).

Fortified foods such as iron-enriched porridge flour and iodised salt also help to address nutrient deficiency gaps in the country.

The government gives vitamin A supplements to children below five years free of charge due to the nutrient’s positive impact in child development. Iron supplements are also available for pregnant women.

The private sector is also increasingly contributing to the fight against malnutrition in the country.

Merck Pharmaceuticals, the producer of Seven Seas Cod Liver Oil which is rich in Omega 3 and vitamin E, recently set up its consumer health business in Kenya.

“We would like to ensure that many children get access to Omega 3 supplements which plays a key role in brain development and prevents stunting,” said Uta Kemmerich-Keil, Merck Consumer Health Global President.

Through a campaign dubbed Together for a Stronger Generation, the company has also partnered with MoH to raise awareness on healthy eating habits and key nutrients required by children for healthy development.

Kemmerich-Keil said that they plan to supply Kenya with other types of nutritional supplements such as iron which promotes healthy pregnancy and proper development of unborn babies.

“Our intention is to build a business that will help younger generations grow healthy so that they can live to their best and fullest ability.”