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Dia Sanou

I was bDia Sanou130x180orn in a rural community of Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso. I guess when you grew up in a remote community, everything seems normal until you get exposed to a new learning and cultural experience. In my village, people were fatalist. They strongly believed that there is nothing humans can do to avoid death since the will is that of the Lord. For them, a disease including malnutrition was not related to biological factors under human control, but most often to sorcerer or ancestor punishment.

As soon as I gained scientific knowledge at school, I started questioning this perception. I was particularly confused by traditional interpretation of some issues such as goitre, kwashiorkor and malaria. At the same time, I was fascinated by traditional strategies used to address some issues and how some of them can be linked to scientific concepts. I then planned to become a medical doctor to further understand disease and help to reduce the high mortality rate. However, it was too expensive for a rural student to complete a seven year university degree without a scholarship.

As an alternative option, I decided to study biology at the University of Ouagadougou to better understand the human body and its diseases. After the first two years, I was given an opportunity to complete an honours degree in food technology and human nutrition through a partnership between my university and Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

As an undergraduate student, I was strongly influenced by two courses, on dietary habits and nutrition intervention. I then realised that nutritional deficiencies were so widespread in my country that the only way to make a significant contribution was to address the problem in the entire population, always keeping in mind traditional perceptions. My interest for public health nutrition originated from there. The global nutrition training program of SIDA, the Swedish International Development Agency I attended in Uppsala (2003) strengthened my faith that public health approach in nutrition is the most relevant option for Africa.

My dream to become a qualified public health nutritionist came true when I was awarded a PhD scholarship by CIDA the (Canadian International Development Agency) scholarship. I then completed a PhD degree with the public health nutrition group at Université Laval (Québec, Canada) where I worked on a dietary intervention to improve the iron status of preschool orphan and vulnerable children in Burkina Faso. For my postdoctoral training, I was fortunate to work under the supervision of a nutrition anthropologist (Noreen Willows) within an interdisciplinary team, to understand determinants of obesity and develop community-culturally situated intervention, using an ecological model, among children in two different Canadian Aboriginal communities. This experience has strongly influence my current view of public health nutrition.

My professional experience started in Burkina Faso in its national nutrition centre. I joined the division of food control and applied human nutrition of the National Public Health Laboratory (Burkina Faso) to work as the head of the food microbiology and hygiene unit for three years before undertaking my PhD studies. Since 2005, I have been working to understand and improve nutrition of children in vulnerable communities in a global context, with a particular focus on micronutrient deficiencies in low-income countries and obesity in Canadian immigrant and Aboriginal populations.

To overcome the challenge of global malnutrition, we must move beyond biochemical and clinical concepts in nutrition, so as to understand the values, beliefs and practices of the target population, and its decision making processes, and incorporate that into our practice. I understand public health nutrition as such an approach. It is and should be transdisciplinary community driven teamwork, whose purpose is to understand and address the multilevel risk factors of malnutrition in a population using integrated approaches, including biological, psychological, cultural, socioeconomical and environmental. It should be guided by community members for cultural appropriateness, and relevance of programme intervention at all stages, from design to implementation, evaluation and dissemination. Professionals from different disciplines can build on community values and traditions to achieve a common goal using a framework that integrates and transcends their respective discipline perspectives.