Vitamin A is an essential fat soluble micro-nutrient the body requires for normal functioning of visual systems, growth and development, maintenance of fast growing cells,
By Isaac Ongu
Vitamin A is an essential fat soluble micro-nutrient the body requires for normal functioning of visual systems, growth and development, maintenance of fast growing cells, immune function and reproduction.
This definition from a Food and Agricultural Organization document mentions key functions of Vitamin A.
In plants Vitamin A exists as carotenoids mostly beta carotene in deep colored foods like sweet potatoes, carrots and green leafy vegetables. The body converts beta carotenes into Vitamin A. The most certain symptom of Vitamin A deficiency is visual impairment which later may lead to total sight loss.
According to the Uganda nutrition action plan, 2011-2015, many of the nutrition problems that women and children experience in Uganda are hidden and as a result of micronutrient deficiencies among young children and women of reproductive age.
It recognises that Vitamin A deficiency affects one out of five young children and women of reproductive age, resulting in impaired resistance to infection and consequently higher levels of illness and mortality, as well as potentially severe eye problems. Uganda has the Food and nutrition policy of 2003 with the overall goal of ensuring food security and adequate nutrition for all the people in Uganda, for their health as well as their social and economic well-being.
Uganda also subscribes to several regional and international commitments on nutrition that include International Conference on Nutrition, 1992; World Food Summit, 1996; Declaration on the Millennium Development Goals, 2000, among others.
Government should fully operationalize this policy and comply with regional and international obligations.
The nutrition action plan seeks to help improve on the key nutritional indicators that would involve increasing the levels of consumption of diverse nutritious foods among the target populations through increasing the production of and access to foods that are rich in micronutrients at household and community level.
One of the strategies is promoting consumption of nutrient enhanced foods by promoting production of fortified common staples by local manufacturers; promoting production of bio-fortified varieties; promoting utilization of nutrient enhanced foods through increased awareness on the benefits of consuming fortified and bio-fortified foods including their adoption; and supporting local production of ready to use therapeutic and complementary food.
Addressing Vitamin A deficiency and deficiencies of other micronutrients like iron in major staple foods like banana, cassava and sweet potatoes will go a long way in ensuring the objectives set out in the Uganda’s Nutrition action plan are met.
Use of Vitamin A supplements is not sustainable and is not better than beta carotene, precursors of Vitamin A in plant sources that only gets converted to vitamin A as the body requires.
The effort by several stakeholders to promote orange fleshed sweet potatoes should be commended and encouraged. National Agricultural Research Organization’s effort in developing cassava and banana with enhanced levels of beta carotene is in the right direction and will help rural households that rely on one staple get additional access to Vitamin A in their daily diets.
Orange fleshed sweet potato alone cannot address the rampant problem of Vitamin A deficiency as it does not stay long in the garden like cassava and banana making banana and cassava good candidates for beta carotene sources in the diets of rural households. Those living in urban areas access several foods from various rural areas providing them required balanced diets.
The ministry of health and other relevant ministries should step up to implement provisions in the nutrition action plan so as to save sights, and reduce mortality of several rural children in Uganda.
The writer is an Agriculturist and consultant on agricultural information and dissemination
The importance of Vitamin A enhanced staples in Uganda cannot be downplayed