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2022 Ghana DHS report: Media silence on sweetened beverage consumption by children worrying

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In the wake of the recent release by the Ghana Statistical Service of the Ghana Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) report, the media frenzy surrounding certain sections has inadvertently obscured critical information regarding infant and young child feeding practices.

While headlines have been dominated by statistics on adult sexual behaviors, little attention has been paid to a crucial aspects such as public health, maternal and child health—specifically, the alarmingly high prevalence of overweight and obesity among Ghanaian women of reproductive health, high prevalence of anemia (51%) among Ghanaian women, and early socialization of  infants and young children to sweetened beverages.

According to the report, a staggering 32% of children aged 6–23 months were fed sweet beverages; while an equally concerning 33% consumed unhealthy foods. These findings underscore a pressing issue that demands immediate attention and concerted efforts to address. Infant and young child feeding (IYCF) practices play a pivotal role in the health and well-being of children, laying the foundation for their growth and development. Recommended practices, such as early initiation of breastfeeding, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and the provision of a diverse and nutritious diet, are crucial for ensuring optimal health outcomes.

According to the GSS report, “Fifty-three percent of children under 6 months were exclusively breastfed.” This figure is equally alarmingly low enough to attract media attention but like the many other crucial aspects of the report, the Ghanaian media chose to glide with the tide of sensation on the sexual behaviours of adults.

The prevalence of sweetened beverage consumption among infants and young children poses a significant threat to optimal health outcomes.

According to the report, 1 in every 2 women in Ghana are overweight and obesity among adult women. The figure surged from 10% in 1993 to a staggering 40% in 2014, and to 50% in 2022.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), NCDs kill 41 million people each year, equivalent to 74% of all deaths globally. The data indicates that of all NCD deaths, 77% are in low- and middle-income countries.

In October 2021, the Ghana Health Service (GHS) sounded an alarm about the high incidence of hypertension and diabetes among the public, including children in the Accra Metropolis.

Giving the link between consumption of health-harming foods such as SSBs, is the 32% of children aged 6–23 months fed sugar-sweetened beverages together with the 33% said to have consumed unhealthy foods in the latest DHS report stand a high chance of battling NCDs in the near future.

The consequences of feeding children sweetened beverages are far-reaching and potentially devastating. Not only do these beverages lack essential nutrients necessary for growth and development, but they also contribute to a range of health problems, including dental caries, childhood obesity, and metabolic disorders.

Two complementary projects, the Advocating for Ghana’s Health (A4H) and the Healthier Diets for Healthy Lives (HD4HL) Project are a crucial initiative aimed at tackling the rising threat of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Ghana and across Africa.

With NCDs projected to become the leading cause of death in Africa by 2030, it’s imperative to address the underlying factors contributing to this health crisis.

Alarmed by the silence of the Ghanaian media following the release of the report, the Principal Investigator of the Projects took to X (formerly Twitter) to disclose his displeasure.

Amos Laar on X: “Interestingly, the report that contained data on the sexual behavior of Ghana’s married men and women also reported inappropriate socialization of our infants to health-harming ‘foods’. Few, if any, of Ghana’s journalists are reporting on the latter. https://t.co/JG8fm335bY” / X (twitter.com)

Professor Amos Laar went further to indicate that: “…today, if a nation has lots of its women, anemic, lots of children, stunted, lot more women overweight/obese, the odds of this nation having anemic GDP in the next 20 years is high… the foundation is weak. For more, consult the 2022 DHS report https://t.co/dKDVCatb0G” / X (twitter.com)

These projects recognize that unhealthy food environments play a significant role in driving the prevalence of NCDs, and thus, focuses on implementing policies that promote healthier dietary choices. Through rigorous research, evidence-informed advocacy, and collaboration with key stakeholders including government agencies, academia, and civil society organizations, the HD4HL Project is working to create tangible solutions to combat the double burden of malnutrition.

By generating context-relevant evidence, the project aims to address data poverty and policy inertia, which have historically hindered the development of effective public health policies.

One of the key strategies employed by the HD4HL Project is the promotion of the WHO “Best Buys” – these are evidence-informed cost effective actions or policies recommended by the WHO for combating NCDs in LMICs.

By advocating for these policies, the project seeks to create healthier food environments that nudges individuals to make healthy dietary choices and protects them from obesogenic environments.

Thus, these project believe that “If the government of Ghana implements comprehensive policy measures – a mix of low agency and high agency food environment policy measures to inform and empower consumers; to guide and influence consumers; to incentivize the consumption of healthier foods, and to discourage/ disincentivise consumption of unhealthy foods, then food actors (eg, producers and consumers) will make immediate or strategic decisions to reduce availability, attractiveness and consumption of such less healthy foods, or increase availability, attractiveness, and consumption of healthier foods.”

To maximize the impact of these efforts, the media need to play an active role in raising awareness and disseminating information about the importance of healthy diets in preventing NCDs.

 

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