Nutrition: Between Under-5 and Learning Ability

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Odimegwu Onwumere

Master Chidi is a boy of five years old living with the opulent parents in Oyigbo, a suburb of Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State. Unlike some of his mates across the country are stunted due to malnutrition and may likely not show ‘school-readiness’, neighbours of Chidi are astonished at his behaviour that posits him like a grown up in the way he handles his feelings, cooperate with people, help the parents in domestic works, and does many other things with little adult regulation.

To some Christians in the country, Chidi is one of the “end time children” who show rare mettle. Such children have wisdom and are smarter than most adults. Looking at this issue critically, many see their behaviours as abnormal. Hence, the question Chidi’s parents have been asking was, if their son has been bewitched by the behaviours he portrays.

The parents are scared that they might be living with an abnormal child in the same roof, thinking that all is well with Chidi. The mother explains that at school, he does excellently well. The teachers marvel at Chidi’s braininess. The mother has taken him from one hospital to another in order to ascertain if he has some health challenges by the clever ways he behaves. She later encountered a team of tourists’ neurosurgeons at a popular hospital in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, where it was affirmed that Chidi has a great IQ which was as a result of early nutrition he has enjoyed.

Over the years, some leading voices in nutrition, early child development and education of a child have said that a child needs encouraging nutrition at the early age in order not to be affected education-wise in a number of ways, because nutrition boosts the brain in a child for his or her learning attainment; given that cognitive, motor and socio-emotional developments are imperative phases of school readiness and can frequently be associated with cognitive improvement intimately. They also add that health and nutrition contribute in a great way on how ‘school readiness’ a child will be, particularly, because stunted children enroll in school later than other children and show poorer developmental levels, unlike children hospitalised for other grounds.

“School readiness refers to a range of competencies that preschool children should possess in order to benefit from the school environment. In order to be ready for school, in this sense, children require certain cognitive skills, such as language abilities and numeracy, a level of physical and motor development, and appropriate socio-emotional development. Early childhood health and nutrition interventions have the potential to make a major contribution to achieving Education for All,” says Matthew Jukes, a researcher on Early Childhood Health, Nutrition and Education in developing countries like Nigeria.

Effects
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) Communication Specialist, Mr. Geoffrey Njoku, at a media conversation organised by UNICEF for select journalists in a number of states of the South-west on August 22, 2016, showed worry about what he said was the incalculable number of children without a proper nutrient, with evidence showing that 22 per cent of children fewer than five years in the zone, have stunted growth.

Njoku argues that nearly 11 million children each year – about 30,000 children a day – die of diseases like malaria and meningitis before reaching their fifth birthday, mostly from preventable causes, such as malnutrition, adding that of these children, four million die in their first month of life.

“It is becoming apparent that treating health and nutrition problems in pre-school children (five years old) is important for two reasons. First, these children account for more than 50 per cent of the global gap in mortality between the poorest and richest quintiles of the world’s population and second, they bear 30 per cent of the total burden of disease in poor countries.

“There are an estimated 600 million preschool children worldwide (US Census Bureau, 2002) and they have several-fold higher case fatality rates for many infections therefore keeping them healthy gives them a better survival rate in childhood and adulthood. Of the 10.5 million children that died in 1999, 99 per cent were from developing countries and of these, 36% were in Asia and 33 per cent in Africa,” says Njoku.

Specialists say that from the study, children with underprivileged nutrition during the important two-year period after birth appear remote, less active and are less helpful than their well-nourished counterparts. Nevertheless, Dakota Karratti, a leading voice in nutrition showed on April 24, 2015, “A 2010 study from The Journal of Nutrition found that undernourished two-year-olds were 16 per cent more likely to fail at least one grade in school and entered school later than their well-nourished counterparts.

“The scientists behind the study determined that this could decrease the child’s lifetime income by about 10 per cent. The United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition says that even in mild or moderate situations, stunted growth resulting from poor nutrition is correlated with poor academic performance and lowered mental capacity.

Influence
Connoisseurs at The Urban Child Institute, a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting health, particularly that of children, accounts that nutrition, especially at the early years of a child, “has been called the single greatest environmental influence on babies in the womb and during infancy, and it remains essential throughout the first years of life.”

According to the group, “Early shortages can reduce cell production; later shortages can affect cell size and complexity. Nutrient deficits also affect the complex chemical processes of the brain and can lead to less efficient communication between brain cells.”

UNICEF says that inadequate balance feeding for children older than six months, low consumption of iodized salt by households, low vitamin A coverage for children under-five, and anaemia during pregnancy, all contribute to malnutrition in children which is not good for a child’s early development.

Experts at World Health Organisation (WHO) add that while millions of children are starving across Africa due to food crisis, especially with Nigeria recording 50, 000 children among the population starving in northeast that has been ravaged by insurgents, the likes of Chidi have a better 1000 days nutrition and this helps in the quick development the parents and neighbours can see around him.

Critical for normal brain development
“Similarly, there is growing evidence that DHA, an essential fatty acid, is a key component of the intensive production of synapses that makes the first years of life a critical period of learning and development. Many other nutrients – choline, folic acid, and zinc, to name just a few – have been linked specifically to early brain functioning,” the source adds.

Understanding that she did not give Chidi just food at the early development of his life, but the right balance of foods and nutrients in the diet, Chidi’s mother is a happy and proud mother today that she goes about telling people that early childhood development has helped Chidi to be achieving in school and the essential skills he has been developing.

The WHO says that in middle-income countries, one in three children are stunted, with their bodies and brains not growing effectively and this holds them back from school and all activities of life. According to A World at School, a group that specializes on early childhood development, “Early childhood, from pregnancy to the start of primary school, is a critical period in a child’s development. About 80 per cent of brain development is completed by the age of three and 90 per cent by five.

“The lack of good nutrition – among other key factors – can impact a child’s ability to learn and affect their chances of fulfilling their potential at school and then at work.”

Checks reveal that the role of nutrition in brain development and a child’s early education is complex. According to the source, “The effects of most nutrient shortages depend on the extent and duration of the shortage, and in many cases, the brain’s need for a particular nutrient changes throughout its development.”

Impact on a child’s future
Investigation discloses that intercessions with nutrition in the early age of a child have extensive and dependable future effects on the development and education, because human beings are what they eat. “Effects are seen in all dimensions of school readiness – cognitive, motor and socio-emotional development – but are perhaps greatest for motor development.

“The interventions are highly cost-effective compared with other educational interventions. They also have a greater impact on the most disadvantaged children and can help to promote equity in educational outcomes,” says The Urban Child Institute.

The UNICEF bemoans that 18 per cent of under-fives weigh too little for their age and seven per cent experiencing acute malnutrition. The experts say that no matter the chronic food insecurity that most countries in Africa are undergoing, this is not the same as hunger and malnutrition have future ruins.

The Urban Child Institute, adds, “Food-insecure families are often able to avoid hunger by choosing cheaper, more filling types of food over more costly nutritious foods. For young children, the result is often a diet that provides inadequate nutrients for normal growth and development.”

According to Njoku; “In resource-poor countries, physical and mental disability can be a major barrier to schooling. This can result from iodine or folate deficiency or rubella infectious in utero or from cerebral malaria, polio or meningitis infections postnatally.

“Malaria infection, undernutrition and orphanhood can influence the likelihood and timing of enrollment. School readiness depends on cognitive, motor and socio-emotional development which can be affected by, among other things, undernutrition, iron deficiency anemia and malaria.”

Intermediate reports account that when a child is associated with food insecurity at age 4-5, the child is likely to develop obesity.

“Parents facing a shortage of food may encourage their children to eat cheaper, more energy-dense foods. Families may develop a tendency to overeat during periods when food is plentiful. Nutritional shortages during pregnancy and in the early years of life may promote obesity by causing metabolic changes in how energy is used and stored. Brain development may also play a role. Irregular eating patterns can disrupt brain networks involved in energy regulation and hunger signals,” say the reports.

With Chidi’s prodigious skills, his future can be seen to be bright, unlike stunted children, whom professionals say do not do well in school and in life. Chidi enjoyed early nutrition, but many children across Nigeria and by extension Africa, have devastating malnutrition resulting to stunted growth, says UNICEF, hence the introduction of “ready-to-use therapeutic food” as part of its nutrition programme for displaced children population, especially in Somalia.

Well-being and contributions to the society
“For Eastern and Southern Africa, stunting, also referred to as chronic malnutrition (low height for age), is of a particular concern with more than 25 million, or 40 per cent of children under five years of age suffering from it,” the source says.

Nutritionists say that giving children the positive nutrition in their early age also dictates their body mass index. They say that good nutrition to a child secures emotional attachment between the child and his or her parents and to a wider society.

The highlight of this is that good nutrition, according to experts, enables a child to develop regulator circuits in the brain and gives the child a sense of resilience. They add that hundreds of thousands of children aged 6-59 months in developing countries lack Vitamin A and are facing blindness or partial blindness each year; hence many organisations have initiated programmes for Vitamin A supplementation in slightest developed countries.

Vernon Smith, Nobel laureate economist, says, “One of the most compelling investments is to get nutrients to the world’s undernourished. The benefit from doing so – in terms of increased health, schooling, and productivity – are tremendous.”

Odimegwu Onwumere is a poet, writer and consultant based in Rivers State. Email: odimegwu@journalist.com