Missing nutrients

UBC partners with Rwanda  to fortify the children

Think big and persevere. That’s the message UBC Food, Nutrition and Health researcher Judy McLean wants to pass  on to her students.

Visiting rural Rwanda eight years ago, McLean saw first hand the prevalence of childhood malnutrition and food insecurity.  She immediately thought of a vitamin and mineral home fortification system Dr. Stan Zlotkin, a pediatrician at the University of Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital, had created. It sparked an idea to bring Zlotkin’s micronutrient powders to the children of Rwanda.

McLean presented her idea to the Rwandan Minister of Health. As a result, starting in March 2012, 150,000 Rwandan children aged six to 23 months will begin to receive micronutrient powders. Each child will receive 10-12 free sachets per month through support from UN agencies, non-government organizations and the Rwandan government. At the cost of two cents each, these small sachets contain necessary vitamins, from A to E, and key minerals such as iron, zinc and iodine.

“Sixty per cent of Rwandan families live below the poverty line,” says McLean, assistant professor in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems.

She says the Rwandan diet mainly consists of starchy foods such as bananas, cassava, sweet potatoes and maize. Consequently, there is a high prevalence of iron deficiency anemia among young growing children.

“It’s almost impossible for these kids to get the nutrients they need,” says McLean. “Adding micronutrient powders to their food will help give Rwandan children a similar opportunity for growth and health as kids in western countries who consume fortified cereals.”

McLean and a group of UBC nutrition students worked with the Ministry of Health to pilot the program last fall with 60 Rwandan children, following several months of ground-level research that included focus groups and interviews with Rwandan mothers.

“It was important to get the mothers involved. Their attitudes and perceptions helped us create appealing packaging and key messages,” says McLean. “At the end of the day, Rwandan mothers are like mothers everywhere—they just want the best for their kids.”

McLean and her team of LFS undergraduates worked with Rwandan university students to train community health workers, who then trained the mothers. “The idea is to build capacity in those communities so the program carries on after we leave.”

The community health workers led nutrition education workshops and also walked the mothers through the best way to use the micronutrient powders. “The iron is covered with a thin coating of soy lipid to mask its strong metallic taste so mothers are taught to mix it into food that’s warm but not hot enough to melt the lipids,” says McLean.

To demonstrate the project’s effectiveness, McLean and her team will be gathering data over the next 12 months at six-month intervals. “We’ll be checking children hemoglobin levels, measuring their growth, plus interviewing the mothers about changes they see in their child’s health, behaviour and food intake.”

The project has received funding from UNICEF, World Vision, Care, Concern and the World Food Program. Unicef has asked McLean to help implement the project in Zambia in 2012, with other countries to follow.

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UBC Reports | Vol. 58 | No. 4 | Apr. 4, 2012

“The idea is to build capacity in those communities so the program carries on after we leave,” says UBC researcher Judy McLean. Judy McLean Photograph

“The idea is to build capacity in those communities so the program carries on after we leave,” says UBC researcher Judy McLean. Judy McLean Photograph

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UNICEF has asked McLean to help implement the project in Zambia in 2012.

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