School closures and children’s nutritional needs


THE movement control order is back and along with it, schools are closed, with home-based teaching and learning (PdPR) classes to be implemented again. School closures have disrupted the regular access to food assistance for school children who need it.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic started, some children in Malaysia were suffering from the double burden of malnutrition, or the coexistence of under- and over-nutrition. These children do not meet their recommended intake of important nutrients.

On the other hand, high consumption of fast foods and sugar-sweetened beverages has also contributed to childhood obesity.

To address these problems, the Education Ministry has initiated two school feeding programmes – the Supplementary Food Programme (Rancangan Makanan Tambahan) and Nutritious Meal Programme in Schools (Program Hidangan Berkhasiat di Sekolah) – to promote children’s health, education and social development.

However, school closures due to the pandemic disrupt the continuation of these programmes. This means millions of low-income households are burdened and at an increased risk of food insecurity, with kids being the most affected.

To cope with the challenges of the pandemic and school closures, inadequate nutritional intake that includes iron should not be overlooked.

Iron deficiency can result from inadequate intake or poor absorption of dietary iron, increased needs in periods of growth, and infection by intestinal helminths such as hookworms.

Why is adequate iron intake important? Iron is an essential nutrient for the development and cell growth in the immune and neural systems. It is also important in the regulation of energy metabolism to ensure consistent and high-performance activities. Iron regulation is critical for normal brain functions, especially in learning and memory.

Lack of iron may also contribute to developmental delays, cognitive impairments, poor mental and motor functions, and reduced school academic performance. In addition, lack of iron is also associated with iron deficiency anaemia.

Addressing nutritional needs during the pandemic is challenging. Some families may have difficulty buying nutritious food.

What can parents and caregivers do to avoid the negative implications of iron deficiency among children during these tough times?

Here are some recommendations:

> Provide adequate iron-rich foods including legumes such as chickpeas and soybeans, vegetables such as fern shoots, spinach, kale, fruits such as kedondong, jackfruit and rambutan, lean meat, fish and cereal products. If they cannot afford to buy meat, eggs are also a good source of iron.

> Have periodic assessment of children’s iron status at community clinics.

> Comply to the prescribed iron supplements by healthcare professionals in terms of dosage and intake frequency.

> Improve hygiene and sanitation practices to avoid soil-transmitted helminths exposure.

> Increase understanding and awareness of the importance of iron in the growth and development of children.

Parents should practice healthy eating, good hygiene and seek medical advice within their own capacity.

These steps are important to ensure that our children can improve their nutritional status and immune system to reduce the susceptibility to Covid-19 infection and at the same time achieve their full potential by being focused, alert and productive during PdPR and other learning experiences during this challenging period.

DR SITI KHADIJAH YUSOF AZUDDIN, PROF DR MOY FOONG MING and PROF DR NORAN NAQIAH HAIRI

Centre of Epidemiology & Evidence-based Practice, Department of Social & Preventive Medicine

Faculty of Medicine

Universiti Malaya

Kuala Lumpur

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