An international team of researchers, led by the University of Ghana, Launch an innovative NCDs prevention project – the MEALS4NCDs Project

An international team of researchers, led by the University of Ghana, in collaboration with the University of Health and Allied Sciences (UHAS), the Ghana Health Service (GHS), the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), Kenya, National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD), France, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and the Scientific Institute of Public Health (Sciensano), Belgium are exploring innovations to support public sector actions that create healthy food environment in Ghana. The Project focuses on food promotion (marketing to children restrictions), and food provisioning (e.g. improving school nutrition policies/environment). Code-named MEALS4NCDs Project, which stands forproviding Measurement Evaluation, Accountability and Leadership Support (MEALS) for NCDs prevention, the project will adapt and use approaches and tools developed by the International Network for Food and Obesity/non-communicable diseases Research, Monitoring and Action Support (INFORMAS) to support prevention of diseases such as obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and other nutrition-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs). The MEALS4NCDs project was launched on Thursday, August 15th in Accra, Ghana.

Around 51 individuals – comprising invited stakeholders, media representatives, project team and project advisory board members gathered for the launch of the MEALS4NCDs Project. The stakeholders included  representatives of various Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs) -MOH, FDA, NCD Programme of the Ghana Health Service, NDPC, Consumer Protection Agency, Nutrition Department of the Ghana Health Service,  Food Research Institute, Ghana Education Service, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, School Health and Education Program of the Ghana Education Service, Ministry of Finance, Ghana School Feeding Programme, representatives of United Nations agencies –UNICEF, WHO, CSOs,  academics/researchers, and a Member of Parliament.

The project is a deliberate response to the current local, regional, and global problem of NCDs.  Currently, NCDs are responsible for several million deaths annually. In some African countries, NCDs cause over 50% of all reported adult deaths (43% in Ghana). Data from nationally representative surveys (the Ghana Demographic and Health Survey -DHS) show a skyrocketing prevalence of adult obesity in Ghana (especially among women).

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Trajectory of overweight/obesity among Ghanaian women (left) and among Ghanaian children under five years of age (right).

Regarding dietary intakes, the DHS shows that, Ghanaian households frequently consume bouillon cubes (70%), salted dried fish (36%), and foods processed with salt (84%); however, fruits or vegetables consumption is very low – three times a week.

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Dr. Amos Laar, School of Public Health, University of Ghana & Principal Investigator of the Project

In his opening remarks, the Project Leader, Dr. Amos Laar noted that the project aligns well with recent Global Political Declarations and Resolutions.

“In May 2010, the WHA [World Health Assembly], through resolution WHA63.14, aimed to guide efforts by Member States in designing new policies, or strengthening existing policies, on food marketing communications to children in order to reduce the impact of marketing foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, or salt”.

Aside health, there are economic reasons to combat NCDs. Paragraph 7 of the 2018 United Nations Political Declaration on NCDs Express grave concern that the huge human and economic cost of non‑communicable diseases contributes to poverty and inequities and threatens the health of peoples and the development of countries, costing developing countries over the next 15 years more than 7 trillion United States dollars”

The MEALS4NCDs Project not only pays heed to these declarations and resolutions, it is responsive to the WHO Best Buys for NCDs prevention. The project team and partners have the vision to activate the entire arsenal of Food Environment innovations to combat NCDs. Policies, Regulatory, Fiscal, and Legislative measures will eventually be deployed in ways that make unhealthy food unaffordable, and unattractive while making healthy food available and attractive, Dr. Laar added.

In his welcome message, the Dean, School of Public Health, University of Ghana – Professor Julius Fobil reiterated the timeliness of the project and expressed the School’s full support for the Project.

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Professor Julius Fobil, Dean, School of Public Health, University of Ghana

The event was graced by Hon. Dr. Sebastian Sandaare, Member, Parliamentary Select Committee on Health. Reiterating Parliament’s functions – Legislative; Financial; Oversight of the executive; Representational; and Deliberative responsibilities, Hon. Dr. Sebastian Sandaare noted that, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Health, derives is roles from those of government, which include protecting, promoting, and assuring the health of its citizenry. “That is why this project, which aims to measure and support public sector actions that create healthy food environment for children and adolescents so as to facilitate prevention of NCDs in Ghana, is particularly relevant to the work of our Committee” he added. He also indicated that he had become aware of innovative legislative measures in countries like Chile, Mexico, South Africa, which aim to assure public health. He hopes that findings from this project will facilitate introduction of such innovations in Ghana. To this end, he noted that the collaborative efforts of Lawmakers, Researchers, Policy Makers, and Civil Society will make this possible in Ghana.

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Hon. Dr. Sebastian Sandaare, Member, Parliamentary Select Committee on Health

Representing the National Development Planning Commission (NDPC), Mrs. Mary Mpereh, who is also a Member of the MEALS4NCDs Project Advisory Board, noted that, at the core of Ghana’s development is social development, and that the NDPC’s objective for social development is to create safe, peaceful and sustainable communities where, in accordance with the Constitution, Ghanaians can live productive, prosperous, and fulfilling lives, in freedom and in peace. She stated that “Given that NCDs are a threat to Ghana’s social development, NDPC pledges its full support to this great exercise to ensure a healthy population”.

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Mrs. Mary Mpereh, National Development Planning Commission (NDPC), Member, Project Advisory Board.

Ms. Maria Aba Lovelace-Johnson (Chief Regulatory Officer  at the Food and Drugs Authority, FDA) represented Mrs. Delese Darko (Chief Executive Officer, and Member of Advisory Board of the MEALS4NCDs Project). Ms. Lovelace-Johnson reiterated FDA’s support to the project noting that the objectives of the project overlaps with  FDA’s core mandates to protect the health and safety of the Ghanaian public through the monitoring of food or systems for control of food manufacture, storage, retail, among others.

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Ms. Maria Aba Lovelace-Johnson, FDA Ghana

Although NCD deaths mainly occur in adulthood, they are becoming increasingly common among young people and UNICEF recommends a life-course approach to addressing NCD prevention. Ms. Lilian Selenje, of UNICEF, Ghana indicated that UNICEF is always seeking opportunities to support the development of early life NCDs preventive interventions or programmes such as promotion of school-based nutrition education and physical activity, and promotion of healthy food environments for children. “We hope that this joint effort will produce high-impact solutions that can be scaled up to other countries to combat the global burden of NCDs, particularly among children and adolescents”, she added.

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Ms. Lilian Selenje, UNICEF, Ghana

Ms. Joana Ansong of WHO (Ghana) and member of the MEALS4NCDs project Advisory Board was represented by her colleague (Ms. Akosua Kwakye), who indicated that the MEALS4NCDs initiative resonates with the recommendations and resolutions of the WHO (Resolution WHA63.14), which aim to reduce the impact of marketing foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, or salt. Ms. Kwakye noted that “current evidence suggests that actions by governments and communities that address all components of marketing (product, place, promotion and price) effectively protect children from powerful, unhealthy food marketing in their everyday settings, with positive externalities to adults, and their communities. This Project pays heed. You therefore have our full support. The WHO will do all in kind in its Advisory role on the Project”.

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Ms. Akosua Kwakye, WHO, Ghana

Dr. Emmanuel Ankrah Odame, Ministry of Health, & Member of the MEALS4NDS Project Advisory Board reiterated the Ministry of Health’s commitment to improving the health status of all Ghanaians. He noted that in response to the alarming rise in NCDs and their impact on health and socioeconomic development, the Ministry developed the Ghana NCD policy in 2012. “In line with the objectives of the policy, which is currently being revised, the Ministry will give high priority to promoting healthy lifestyles among in-and out-of-school youth. We are therefore excited to collaborate with the University of Ghana and partners on this project which aims to improve children’s food environment and to prevent NCDs in Ghana’’.
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Dr. Emmanuel Ankrah Odame, Ministry of Health, Ghana. Member, Project Advisory Board

Dr. (Mrs). Beatrice Wiafe Addai and Mr. Issah Ali represent Civil Society Organisations on the MEALS4NCDs Project Advisory Board.  They jointly noted that although some NCDs are unavoidable, much of the global burden of NCDs can be prevented through fixing the flawed global food system, promoting physical activity, and controlling tobacco and alcohol use.

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From L-R: Dr. (Mrs). Beatrice Wiafe Addai, Ghana NCD Alliance Ghana Mr. Issah Ali, Vision for Alternative Development, (VALD) Ghana

Following the solidarity messages were presentations from some Project Investigating Team.

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 From L-R: Dr. Amos Laar (Project PI, University of Ghana) & Dr. Stefanie Vandevijvere (Co-Investigator), Scientific Institute of Public Health, Belgium, presenting aspects of the MEALS4NCDs Project.

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From L-R: Professor Michelle Holdsworth, National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD) & Co-Investigator of MEALS4NCDs Project & Professor Mary L’Abbe, Department of Nutritional Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto & Chair, Advisory Board of the MEALS4NCDs Project delivering aspects of the Project.

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From L-R: Professor Charles Agyemang, University of Amsterdam, & Dr Gershim Asiki, African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), Kenya engaging stakeholders on the potential use of project data, communication and knowledge translation plans in Ghana, Africa, and Globally.

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From L-R: Professor Richmond Aryeetey, University of Ghana, and Dr Samuel Oti, International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada.

 Funding acknowledgement:

The MEALS4NCDs Prevention Project is being implemented with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of IDRC or its Board of Governors.

For further information please contact:  Dr. Amos Laar of the University of Ghana, Project Leader +233 (0)24 498 2176; alaar@ug.edu.gh or info@meals4ncds.org or the project website: www.meals4ncds.org

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