Tanzania struggles to quell hidden hunger in children

As international community marks World Hunger Day on weekend, women and children in Tanzania continue to suffer from nutritional deficiencies.

Tanzania struggles to quell hidden hunger in children

Rural areas of the East African country of Tanzania are grappling with a hidden hunger crisis among young adults and children due to nutritional deficiencies and poor public awareness, doctors warned on the weekend of World Hunger Day, marked on May 28.

“Most children in rural areas are suffering from hidden hunger,” said Simeon Francis, a pediatrician in the village of Manyovu in Kigoma, northwestern Tanzania. “They are more exposed due to a shortage of micronutrients in the meals they eat, as families struggle to put healthy foods on the dinner tables.”

Hidden hunger, a form of malnutrition caused by a lack of vitamins and minerals in the diet, weakens the immune system, affects the physical and intellectual growth of children, and can lead to death, said Francis.

He said the problem not only affects the welfare of rural families but also inflicts a huge economic burden on society due to lost productivity and extreme poverty.

“Hidden hunger goes hand in hand with other forms of malnutrition. It’s hard to deal with it separately,” he told Anadolu Agency.

The lack of food and micronutrient deficiency has created a huge burden on most rural families in Kigoma, as people lack diets rich in important minerals and vitamins for growth, say experts.

Although Tanzania has reduced the number of children suffering from chronic malnutrition, doubts persist as most of them are still suffering from hidden hunger— the worst form of malnutrition.

More than 2.7 million Tanzanian children under the age of 5 were stunted and over 600,000 suffered acute malnutrition, including 100,000 severe cases, according to 2015 data from UNICEF.

“Nutrition is important for children’s growth. Parents must ensure they give their children healthy foods, especially during the first 1,000 days of their lives,” he said.

Parents’ agony

In Buhigwe in western Tanzania, parents often wait for months before naming their newborns because the infants often do not survive long enough to need them.

Some mothers simply nickname their babies “si riziki,” meaning “lost one,” highlighting the agony of many parents in the impoverished village, where infant mortality rates are high due to poor health care and rampant malnutrition.

According to the UN World Food Program, more than 40% of Tanzanians live in food-insufficient regions due to irregular rainfall, degraded soil, and inadequate farming know-how that leads to poor yields.

In a country like Tanzania, where malnutrition is blamed for a third of all deaths of children under 5, the damage inflicted to families, doctors say, is usually irreversible.

According to Francis, insufficient nutrition during the critical months of a child’s development can potentially have lifelong consequences for the brain, body and psyche.

“Food shapes the fate of a child’s life. Getting the right kind of food in the first 1,000 days of life is crucial for a child’s physical and mental development,” he said.

Childhood malnutrition remains a largely hidden crisis in Tanzania whose consequences often happen years later as children suffer from stunted growth, lower IQs, and weakened immune systems, medical experts warn.

Catherine Massawe, a nutritionist in Buhigwe, Kigoma, said malnourished children often show a low capacity to learn and are often vulnerable to infections.

But she said the government in collaboration with partners is discovering innovative solutions which have helped revolutionize how doctors treat acute malnutrition among children in rural areas.

Although doctors at Buhigwe District Hospital initially administered nutrients to malnourished children intravenously, which had a negligible success rate, they are now providing fortified food supplies.

“The WFP is providing ready-to-eat food products which don’t require heat or clean water to cook. They are accessible to most impoverished families,” Massawe said.

Regular checkups

Working with local hospitals, World Food Program officials are also monitoring the health of pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young babies through regular checkups.

With a simple armband, doctors can measure arm circumference to help determine whether a child is healthy, malnourished, acutely malnourished, or severely acutely malnourished.

When indicators are unfavorable, healthcare workers begin a regimen of fortified foods, Massawe said.

In Tanzania, where one in three children under the age of 5 suffers from stunted growth, most families face cultural barriers that deter them from getting good nutrition even when food is abundant, experts say.

“Some women stop breastfeeding their babies early, thus denying babies important nutrients for growth,” said Massawe.

She said misconceptions around feeding and food are still widespread in society.

“When mothers stick to wrong beliefs in feeding their babies, they won’t know it immediately until their children get ill or do poorly in school,” she said.

She said the government has teamed up with partners to raise public awareness of good nutrition practices, including promoting fruit and vegetable consumption in schools and at health clinics.

Massawe said cultural practices like only allowing men to eat certain meats and livers  –  which contain vital minerals and nutrients such as iron and zinc  – have contributed to higher malnutrition rates among pregnant women, nursing mothers, and their infants.

“We’re working hard to fight those beliefs through public education on dietary diversity, breastfeeding, and good sanitation,” she added.

Hüseyin Demir