BY: Tijani Salami –
About three years ago I met a young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Auta, with their first baby. The little girl was one month old but weighed less than two kilograms. As a doctor, I wanted to understand why the baby was so underweight, and asked the couple a lot of questions. The only thing I could pinpoint was the mother’s diet.
The typical Nigerian diet, especially in poorer rural areas, is mainly made up of carbohydrates such as cassava, yam and grains. These are high in energy but lack the protein that pregnant women require. A blood test confirmed that Mrs. Auta was anaemic.
I see the impact of nutritional anaemia on women all the time, especially in rural areas. Anaemia doubles the risk of death in pregnancy and is a key reason why Nigeria has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. It predisposes women and their babies to serious risks including weakness, weight loss, pain, foetal growth retardation, fetal deaths, preterm-births and low birth weight. Anaemia also makes it more likely that mothers may need blood transfusions during or after childbirth, but this is not often available in rural areas, further raising the risk of death.
Social attitudes and habits are important in all aspects of pregnancy, and in a male dominated society like ours, this means more men need to play their part. At present there is no educational campaign that targets men on how to support their wives in pregnancy. And in patriarchal societies, preference is often given to feeding men, even when a woman is pregnant. This needs to change.
As part of my work with the Auta family, we went together to the market. Neither Mrs. Auta nor her husband had ever been told about what to eat during pregnancy and they thought that what they usually ate was sufficient. I showed them a range of foods that are widely available and rich in protein such as fish, meat, eggs and beans, and also encouraged them to eat plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits containing important vitamins and minerals. I am pleased to report that their baby improved rapidly once Mrs. Auta changed her diet. She is now pregnant with her second child and showing no signs of anaemia.