Harnessing Power Of Digital Health, TFA Elimination In Nigeria

Joy Amafah
Joy Amafah

Celebrating the World Heart Day has contributed to the increased levels of awareness for heart diseases – prevention and treatment – in no small measure. It has further aided the policy drive for countries like Nigeria, where civil society organizations and other relevant bodies have rallied to mobilise the people towards formulating better health care programmes and policies.

The theme for this year’s celebration, ‘Harnessing the power of digital health to improve awareness, prevention and management of CVD (cardiovascular deaths) globally’ further reiterates the changing dynamics of health, health management, health care and health policies globally. The World Health Organization (WHO) must be commended for beaming the light on global needs.

The first reported case of the coronavirus in December 2019 did not appear as an event that will derail many policies around the world. Many would have believed it was a one-off event that would have no bearing on general issues, including power shift, politics and the economics of the world. However, by 2020, things began to look different with many calling for drastic (and, perhaps, radical) approaches to health care delivery.

Amid the seemingly overwhelming chaos, digital tools took centre stage and provided a way out. With less (physical) interaction amongst people and an increasing need for the flow of information, the world realized that it had underutilised many tools at its disposal.

As it is with many issues on the global stage, there were gaps in tools, people, policies and management at various critical times. In the world today, many countries have successfully established policies/laws/regulations to efficiently tackle heart issues; from huge taxes on tobacco products to mandatory regulation of industrially produced trans-fatty acids (TFAs) in processed and packaged foods.

After the World Health Organization launched its REPLACE package in 2018, the global health watchdog provided everyone with a workable framework for eliminating industrially-produced TFAs in foods. According to WHO, the REPLACE action package provided a strategic approach to eliminating industrially-produced trans-fat from national food supplies, with the goal of global elimination by 2023. It further said that “Increased intake of trans-fat (>1 per cent of total energy intake) is associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease, mortality and events.

For low- and middle-income countries, one would assume that this workable plan presents to their governments a low hanging fruit to improve on their health index. But it seems the reverse is the case, as many countries may be far behind in achieving the 2023 set date.

At the launch of the “2019-2025 Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) Multi-sectoral Action Plan for Nigeria”, the Resident Coordinator, UN in Nigeria, reported that low-and middle-income countries ‘bear 86 per cent of the burden of these premature deaths (from cardio-vascular diseases), giving rise to an estimated cumulative economic loss of US$7 trillion over the next 15 years and entrapment of millions of people in poverty.”

Nigeria, as a country, has embarked on putting appropriate policies in place. This happened after a considerable review of the existing framework to show that Nigeria needs to ensure food producers are guided by global standards. This move has since been stalled by COVID-19 and bureaucratic bottlenecks.

In a country with a weak health system, I have hoped for a more speedy response from the government – even in the face of COVID-19, as larger percentage of fatalities due to COVID were associated with CVDs. Nevertheless, Nigerians took up the gauntlet, with civil society organizations (CSOs) and other stakeholders leading in the public health advocacy and nutrition space, rallied the public to support the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and the Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH) for a review of the regulations. While waiting for the regulation, these organizations have deployed digital media tools to deliver timely messages on the dangers of foods laden with TFAs and other preventive steps.

This campaign has increased the consciousness of Nigerians on TFAs and the need for government’s intervention. Also, it has helped to actively mobilise Nigerian youths to realize the importance of the food they eat.

In my previous publication, I maintained that Nigeria could lead the way in Africa, in combating TFAs and building a healthier society. I still believe this is the case. Nigeria must now complement the efforts of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), NGOs, CSOs, FBOs (faith-based organizations) and other stakeholders working assiduously to educate and sensitize the people with a workable regulation and effective implementation and enforcement.

With digital tools and telehealth-based strategies, these organizations have done the important work of getting the people’s nod for the government to build on. The people can conveniently wield their purchasing power to determine who gets most patronage (good oils or bad oils); they can also back government policies and aid enforcement, but the ultimate (and non-negotiable) step is a TFA regulation from NAFDAC.

 Joy Amafah, a public health policy expert, writes from Abuja. She can be reached on joyamafah@gmail.com.

Joy Amafah
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