Mother and child nutrition is another vital area where UNICEF is making a tremendous difference improving the well-being the nation. Anaemia has long been a major debilitating ailment afflicting many women, and impacting their new-born children.
Experts estimate that at least two out every three Azerbaijani women of reproductive age are anaemic, and health care professionals describe the situation as ``disastrous.’’ Some local medical health officials are so inured by this disturbing situation that they are surprised when an expectant mother does not have anaemia. Medical staff often do not fully appreciate this situation’s gravity, and that it puts the lives of mothers in danger and can harm children’s intellectual development.
This nationwide health problem, however, can be resolved with the right political leadership and determination. The problem is rooted in poor diets. Many women don’t have access to meat, and in general, have poor nutrition. They consume a lot of bread and fried foods, and fail to consume sources of iron. In addition, the widespread consumption of tea both during and after a meal is another factor in anaemia since tea’s tannic acid prevents absorption of iron by the body.
UNICEF has advocacy campaigns and programmes that encourage women to take vitamins and iron, explaining the benefits of doing so. Also, together with government agencies, laws are being written that will compel food processors to fortify flour with iron (and other micronutrients). This is a relatively simple and low cost, but high impact, solution to a serious problem.
The low level of breast-feeding is another serious health concern in Azerbaijan, and UNICEF works closely with government agencies to promote this as part of a healthy lifestyle. Currently, only about 12% of new mothers breastfeed their infants without any other liquid supplementing it. This disturbing statistic makes a significant contribution to high infant mortality, as well as to stunted growth in young children, and to a range of childhood diseases.
Implementing norms and standards is not an easy task. For instance, according to official statistics about 63 out of 78 health facilities have been certified as “baby-friendly” by UNICEF. This ostensibly means they are implementing the new breastfeeding rules, among other things. However, research shows that many mothers still do not breastfeed within the first few hours of life, a clear indication there is something wrong with implementation.
Better monitoring is necessary, and UNICEF is helping the government to change and implement all protocols and instructions regarding infant feeding.
Since 2000 UNICEF has been successfully supporting increasing iodine consumption in Azerbaijan, because low levels of iodine intake for a growing child leads to significant declines in intelligence. From the moment of conception, iodine is crucial to young children’s physical and mental development. In cooperation with the government, UNICEF helped implement laws mandating salt be iodised, and to monitor salt processing. UNICEF’s efforts have made a significant improvement in the health and well-being of children and maternal health.