By Sharon Atieno

Based on evidence from studies conducted in several countries in the West, supplementing the diets of pregnant women with long chain fatty acid or vitamin D could reduce the risk of children developing asthma and chest infections.

The commonest non-communicable lung diseases in low and middle income countries (LMIC) are asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease (COPD), both characterized by airflow obstruction.  

Asthma is an incurable disease which often progresses from childhood to adulthood. Though it causes substantial disability globally, the disease is often under-diagnosed and under-treated.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there around 235 million people living with asthma and over 80% of asthma-related deaths occur in low-and lower-middle income countries, of which majority of African countries belong.

Prevalence of asthma in Kenya from the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC) studies was up to 14% in Eldoret and 18% in Nairobi.

Prof. Graham Devereux, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, speaking during the 10th KEMRI Annual Scientific Health (KASH) Conference notes that despite a lot of babies developing asthma very early in life, many pediatricians comfortably diagnose the disease at 5 years.

This is because despite children presenting with wheezing- a common symptom of asthma-many of them wheeze due to viral infection and only few cases develop to asthma.

Presenting evidence from studies carried out in Denmark, United States of America and Mexico, he says that increasing the intakes of some nutrients during pregnancy significantly reduces the outcome of asthma in children.

The studies carried out in Denmark investigated the childhood outcome of addition of long chain fatty acid supplements into the diet of pregnant women and showed a reduction of up to 20% in asthma cases, whereas studies carried in Denmark and U.S.A using vitamin D supplements also showed reduction of 20%.

Though, similar studies are yet to be carried out in Africa, the available data indicates that there are widespread deficiencies of long chain fatty acids, vitamin D, vitamin E and iron in African women of child bearing age.

Fatty acids can be obtained from fresh oily fish such as tuna, salmon, mackerel and trout as well as algae while vitamin D can be obtained from eggs,  sunshine and others.

“The intervention is sustainable and can contribute to the prosperity of the society as the sources of these nutrients can be obtained from plant/fungal sources,” says Prof. Devereux.

He adds that there is need to investigate the potential for primary asthma prevention by nutrient intervention during pregnancy in Africa. However, pregnant women should continue to eat healthy and should not change their diet until further information is available.