Rwanda: Nutritionists Allay Parents' Fears Over 'Ongera' Nutritious Powder

Experts in nutrition have said that consumption of micro-nutrient powder for children known as Ongera Intungamubiri is safe and has many benefits in improving children's nutrition, and growth through tackling stunting.

Their observations are in response to concerns expressed by some parents that their children suffered from diarrhea soon after consuming Ongera powder, which prompted some to discontinue its use.

"I once used Ongera, I stopped using it after it caused diarrhea to my baby. The diarrhea disappeared after I stopped feeding my baby with it," Theophile Tutuno, a parent said.

However, Tutuno, who lives in Huye District, said that though the condition made her stop feeding the nutrients to her baby, she understands the importance of that nutritious powder.

Ongera Intungamubiri was introduced in 2015 by the Ministry of Health with support of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), for consumption by children aged 6 months to 23 months in the effort to fight stunting among children in the country.

This initiative is being implemented by the National Early Childhood Development Programme (NECDP) where this nutrient is distributed to parents for free, through health advisors in all villages in the country.

This Micro-Nutrient Powder (MNP) is a blend of 15 vitamins and minerals in a 1-gram sachet, which are sprinkled on food prepared at home. MNP was initially developed as a way to boost iron and other nutrients required for the prevention of anemia.

No cause for alarm

Faustin Machara, a Maternal and Child Feeding Specialist in NECDP argues that "due to the digestion of iron, stools have a changed color, frequency and thickness, but it is not diarrhea. And it only lasts approximately two days, after which it ceases."

He added that parents should not be discouraged by this, saying it is normal and harmless.

Asked if Ongera had contributed to a drop in the stunting rate for children, Machara said there are many factors, but Ongera was indeed among them.

"Going by the statistics by the Rwanda Demographic and Health Survey (RDHS), the stunting rate among children under five, in 2015, it was 38 percent and it reduced to 35 percent according to the Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis (CFSVA) in 2018. There are many factors that led to the drop, but Ongera is one of them," he said.

Marie Claire Ikirezi, a parent from Kicukiro District who has been fed her baby on Ongera for three years so far said "the child is strong and growing well. You can tell there is no problem with him".

According to Machara, a country wide survey has not yet been done, to know the actual people using Ongera, or have discontinued its use, but he said that they have figures for some specific districts.

He said that the target was to reach over 548,000 children.

Giving an example, Machara said that in Muhanga District, the demand for Ongera hit 189 percent in February this year, because some parents were getting the nutrient for children up to five.

He said that despite the fact that Ongera nutrients can be fed and are of value to anybody of any age, the campaign only targets those up to two years, because that is what available funds can cater for.

In 2011, a research on the powder's appropriateness and acceptability was conducted and the results came out positive, according to the UNICEF report in 2015.

The report says that the status of hemoglobin - a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body - of children consuming Ongera as recommended was found to have increased.

Low hemoglobin count may indicate you have anemia, which is a condition in which you lack enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to your body's tissues. Having anemia can make you feel tired and weak.

Machara says that this program is not only in Rwanda, but in most low and middle-income countries across the globe.

This is because a big part of their citizens does not have access to animal product food, such as meat and eggs, which is highly rich in iron among.

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