By Eniola Adeyeye
School-aged children are part of the vulnerable groups and are susceptible to vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Vitamin A is one of the four major nutrients of public health importance with a more prevalent deficiency in developing countries like Nigeria.
According to World Health Organization (WHO), about one-third of children aged 6-59 months are vitamin A deficient with the majority from Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. With a prevalence range of 11 – 28%, vitamin A deficiency is of major public health in Nigeria.
In combating the menace of vitamin A deficiency, several approaches are being explored, some of which include;
Vitamin A Supplementation: use of vitamin A drug supplement, vaccines, etc.
Food Fortification: addition of vitamin A to food items during processing.
Biofortification: process of increasing the vitamin A concentration in staple foods through conventional planting methods.
In light of this, the Oyo State chapter of the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme (NHGSFP) included bio-fortified vitamin A maize into the school feeding menu for primary 1-3 public school pupils enrolled in the programme across the state as a strategic approach to mitigating the micronutrient deficiency.
In collaboration with Senator Adeyemo Women Economic Cooperative (SAWEC), a trainee of the HarvestPlus IITA Biofortification Programme, the bio-fortified vitamin A maize is being produced and made available to the cooks through the local farmers.
As opposed to the use of ‘analogue’ maize (i.e. conventional maize) in preparing maize-based school meals like Egbo (Corn Meal) and Beans & Maize Pottage, the program cooks now make use of Vit-A bio-fortified ‘digital’ maize in making sumptuous and nutritious local delicacies served to the pupils across various public primary schools in the pilot local government areas including Akinyele, Ibarapa and Oorelope local government areas.
While conducting monitoring exercises at various schools in the pilot local government area, the programme team interacted with the school pupils, they confirmed that aside from the change in colour of the Egbo meal from white to yellow, there was no significant change in taste.
The team also seized the opportunity to educate the pupils on the importance of vitamin A consumption in enhancing eyesight and improving body immunity in fighting diseases.
The human body cannot synthesize vitamin A, hence, consumption of Vitamin A-rich food sources is a sustainable approach to reducing its deficiency. The food sources include;
Animal Sources: beef, liver, egg, dairy products,
Plant Sources: fruits, vegetables and vitamin A bio-fortified crops such as maize and cassava.
Deficiency of vitamin A results in night blindness or total blindness, dry eyes, decreased growth rate, poor immune system, poor skin development, increased risk of infertility, Mortality during pregnancy and an increased risk of diarrhoea and respiratory infection in children which in severe cases, could lead to death.
Hence, the introduction of vitamin A Biofortified foods into the Oyo State Home Grown School Feeding Programme Menu to mitigate such occurrences in school age pupils in the state. This will also encourage the parent to purchase and consume vitamin A Biofortified food items, thus improving nutrition at household levels.
The most common function of vitamin A is its role in eye health and optimizing vision. According to UNICEF, about 250,000-500,000 children who suffer from vitamin A deficiency go blind within a year with records of about 50% deaths in the first year of losing their sight. This shows the need for deliberate actions to combat vitamin A deficiency, especially in school-age children.
Ensuring that the school-age children in Oyo State are nutrition secure, and not just food secure via the introduction of biofortified vitamin A maize in the programme menu is a major milestone.