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IAEA Showcases Nuclear Techniques to Combat Malnutrition in Africa

The IAEA's Victor Owino presented at the 8th Africa Nutritional Epidemiology Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The IAEA's Victor Owino presented at the 8th Africa Nutritional Epidemiology Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  (Photo: V. Owino/IAEA)

The 8th Africa Nutritional Epidemiology Conference (ANEC) took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from 1-5 October 2018 under the theme: ‘multi-stakeholder nutrition actions in Africa: translating evidence into policies, and programmes for impacts.’ This theme set the scene for a five-day flow of knowledge exchange and engagement among participants on how Africa can free itself from being the continent with the most undernourished population and now, one of the most rapidly rising scourges of overweight and obesity. The biannual conference, the largest meeting of its kind, is fully driven by African professionals under the auspices of the African Nutrition Society (ANS).

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) contributed to the Conference with the participation of Victor Owino from the Agency’s Nutritional and Health Related Environmental Section (NAHRES). In a keynote address, Owino highlighted the new burden of overweight and obesity as well as related non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and ways to address them with nutritional interventions such as good breastfeeding practices, increased physical activity, school-based nutrition education and control of environmental food-borne contaminants such as mycotoxins.

Owino also presented results from an IAEA-funded Doctoral Coordinated Research Project (CRP) on Human Milk and Body Composition. Participating countries in the CRP included Burkina Faso, India, Jamaica, Kenya, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Thailand, with expert support from Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The presentation, entitled ‘Factors associated with fat-free mass in breastfed African infants living in HIV-prone areas’, covered work undertaken by researchers in Kenya and South Africa using deuterium oxide technique to understand the relationship between maternal HIV-status and their infants nutritional status and body composition. Results from South Africa showed that infants who were breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life according to World Health Organization recommendations had greater lean tissue, an indication of healthier weight gain. Kenyan researchers showed that infants whose mothers were undergoing anti-retroviral therapy had reduced lean tissue. Results from both countries offer evidence that is useful for informing how infants and young children should be fed to ensure good growth and health.

A message common to both presentations was the importance of body composition (fat mass and fat-free mass) as an indicator of the deleterious effects of infectious diseases on child nutritional status on the one hand and the risk of obesity and NCDs on the other. Owino informed participants that body composition cannot be measured accurately through standard methods, such as anthropometry, used in routine growth monitoring. He explained how a nuclear technique, deuterium dilution technique, may be used to measure both body composition and breastfeeding practices.

The IAEA has been supporting several African countries to establish both human resource and laboratory capacity to measure both body composition and breastfeeding practices. One area in which the IAEA can continue to provide support, is with the development of African hubs of excellence to foster standardised training in the use of nuclear techniques in nutritional assessment. Nuclear techniques could also contribute to more objective evaluation of initiatives such as the Seqota Declaration. In order for Africa to achieve Agenda 2063 – a strategic framework for growth and sustainable development, it is vital that malnutrition be eradicated.

Commenting on the Conference, Owino stated that it was a great opportunity to underline the role of the IAEA in bringing the ‘nuclear piece’ to its Member States, to foster evidence-based decision making and policy for improved nutrition and health for all Africans.

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