A nutritionist, Dr. Mary Mgbekem, says the incidence of child malnutrition in Nigeria could be reduced significantly if the country stops the importation of Ready to Use Therapeutic Foods used in the treatment of Severe Acute Malnutrition and begins to produce them locally.
She stated that Ready to Use Therapeutic Foods has revolutionised the treatment of Severe Acute Malnutrition and helped reduce mortality among affected children, noting that RUTFs are safe to use and helped children gain weight quickly.
Dr. Mgbekem, who is an Associate Professor, Department of Nursing Science, University of Calabar, Cross River State, stated this during an interview with PUNCH HealthWise.
The Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, had at a recent consultative meeting with local producers of nutrition commodities in Abuja, said local production of RUTF will improve the country’s Gross Domestic Product and tackle the burden of malnutrition.
“The local production of RUTF will prevent stockouts and make them available and accessible at reasonable costs for the treatment of malnourished children. It will promote conservation of forex and growth of GDP.
“While therapeutic foods currently used in the treatment of malnutrition were included in the essential medicines list, they were procured from outside the country thereby affecting availability and accessibility due to increase in demand”, the minister had said.
But the associate professor said RUTF is a very important food that can be produced in the country if it is seen and regarded as important.
According to a 2017 UNICEF report, an estimated 2.5 million Nigerian children under the age of five suffer from SAM every year, with nearly 420,000 children under five dying as a result of the condition.
The United Nations child agency noted that only two out of every 10 children affected are currently reached with treatment.
Dr. Mgbekem says RUTF is an energy-dense mineral and vitamin-enriched food that requires no preparation and is specifically designed to treat severe acute malnutrition.
She explained, “RUTF can be safely and easily produced in small or large quantities in most settings of the world since there is the local availability of the necessary ingredients.
“The composition of RUTF includes Full fat milk, sugar, vegetable oil, peanut(groundnut), butter, vitamins and minerals.
“This very important food can be produced in Nigeria if it is seen and regarded as important.
“From the composition, we can see that our researchers in food industries, universities and polytechnics can handle this matter if given the funds and enabling environment for research.
“But matters affecting the poor citizens of Nigeria are not often taken seriously to require government concern, commitment and intervention.
“It is also necessary to know that Nigeria and Nigerians prefer foreign goods even if the products are not as good as the locally made ones.”
Dr. Mgbekem noted that the quantity of RUTF that the government buys oftentimes hardly reaches the target audience “which makes it very sad.”
According to UNICEF, Severe Acute Malnutrition is an extremely dangerous condition that makes children nine times more likely to die from common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea, pneumonia and malaria.
“Chronic malnutrition can lead to stunting, leaving children physically and/or mentally under-developed for the rest of their lives. Over 11 million children in Nigeria are stunted – a huge drain on the future of the country”, it says.
Reiterating the need for local production of RUTF, the nutritionist noted, “Nigerians have the talents to achieve whatever they set their minds to do.
“What is needed is enabling environment and financial support. The public needs to be educated on the importance of this food, cost, sustainability, and constant research to bridge the knowledge gaps.
“What should be done is the education of mothers and caregivers on the importance of RUTF and how it can be prepared using locally available ingredients.”
She stressed that child-caring practices that reduce malnutrition should be encouraged to help reduce the rate of the condition.
“One of the functions of the universities is research. The composition of this food is already given, let more research be carried out on local production. This will greatly reduce the stress of waiting for manna to fall and the malnutrition burden in society”, the nutritionist said.