The Movement Control Order (MCO) is back, and along with it, schools are closed and Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran di Rumah (PdPR) or home-based teaching and learning classes will soon be implemented again. School closures have also disrupted regular access to food assistance for schoolchildren who need it.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic started, some children in Malaysia have been suffering from the double burdens of malnutrition: under and over-nutrition. These children do not meet their recommended intake of important nutrients.
On the other hand, high consumption of fast food and sugar-sweetened beverages have also contributed to childhood obesity.
To address these problems, the Ministry of Education has initiated two school feeding programmes, namely 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 has disrupted the continuation and expansion of these programmes. This puts millions of low-income households to be disproportionately burdened and at an increased risk of food insecurity, with children being the ones affected the most.
To cope with the challenges of the pandemic and school closures, inadequate nutritional intakes, including 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 hookworm.
Why is it important to have adequate iron intake? 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 delay, cognitive impairments, poor mental and motor functions and reduced school academic performance. Besides, lack of iron is also associated with iron deficiency anaemia.
Addressing nutritional needs in the midst of the pandemic is challenging. Some families are struggling to make ends meet and may have difficulty in buying nutritious food.
What can parents and caretakers do to avoid the negative implications of iron deficiency among children during this tough times? Here are some recommendations to follow: –
- Provide adequate iron-rich foods including legumes, such as chickpeas and soy beans, vegetables such as fern shoots (pucuk paku), spinach (bayam pasir), kale (kangkung), fruits such as kedondong, jackfruit and rambutan, lean meat, fish and cereal products. If they cannot afford to buy meat, eggs are an alternative for a good source of iron.
- Have periodic assessments of children’s iron status at community clinics.
- Comply with the prescribed iron supplements by health care professionals regarding the dosage and intake frequency.
- Improve hygiene and sanitation practices to avoid soil-transmitted helminth exposures.
- Increase understanding and awareness of the importance of iron in the growth and development of children.
Parents should try their best to practise 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 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, Prof Dr Moy Foong Ming & Prof Dr Noran Naqiah Hairi are from the Centre of Epidemiology & Evidence Based Practice, Department of Social & Preventive Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya.
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.