TACKLING MALNUTRITION IN NIGERIA

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MONDAY EDITORIAL

Government should take immediate steps to address the prevailing poverty

In its latest report titled, “The State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, food and nutrition” released last month, UNICEF revealed that while urbanisation, climate change and poor eating choices are driving unhealthy diets across the world,  no fewer than 50 per cent of children under five in Nigeria are malnourished. This corroborates the 2018 National Nutrition and Health Survey (NNHS) which revealed that acute malnutrition levels in Nigerian children have remained at alert levels over the past six years and is higher than the global estimates. The cost of disregarding this issue in human and economic terms cannot be quantified.

It is all the more disturbing because the NNHS research was conducted not by foreign institutions but by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), in collaboration with the National Population Commission (NPC) and the Nigeria Federal Ministry of Health. Yet, malnutrition implies a marked increase in the child’s susceptibility to infections and contributes to child mortality. Invariably, pregnant women who are not adequately nourished eventually give birth to babies with low weight thus putting their survival at risk. 

Nearly 60 per cent of the children (6-24 months) assessed, according to the NNHS report, “are not fed to the recommended minimum meal frequency for their age and breast feeding status; 65 per cent do not meet the minimum dietary diversity and only 17 per cent children aged 6-23 months receives the minimum acceptable diet while less than 50 per cent are fed on iron-containing foods.” The report states further that “there are significant variations in rates of breastfeeding and complementary feeding indicators and some states especially in South West, North West and North East regions would require more effort to promote optimum breastfeeding benefits.”

 Unfortunately, even though malnutrition is the underlying cause for a third of child mortality in the world, it is yet to receive the nature of high-profile campaigning and investment necessary to address it effectively. Therefore, unless our governments, at all levels, take immediate steps to address hunger and malnutrition, especially in children and pregnant women, our poor indices on maternal and child mortality can only further worsen. Political commitment is necessary to ensure advocacy on the adverse implications of malnutrition and how to avoid its devastating consequences. Partnership with civil society and academic institutions with focus on food and nutrition is also an imperative. 

However, such political commitment is best demonstrated by a tangible increase in resource allocation, with the relevant ministries and agencies committing to establish a road map and coordinated mechanisms for implementing activities for up-scaling nutrition in the public sphere. This road map should consist of clear roles and responsibilities for the various stakeholders, as well as implementable strategies, with milestones for mainstreaming nutrition into agriculture, fortifying basic foods with essential minerals or vitamins, mobilising communities for action on growing more beneficial foods, and highlighting the perils of malnutrition. 

For effective health and social protection, mothers must be encouraged to adopt exclusive breastfeeding habits for their babies in the initial six months of their lives. Thereafter, complementary feeding can be introduced for 24 months, then the consumption of various nutrients such as Vitamin A, iodised salt and zinc, among others.

Nigerians, as we have always argued, deserve a life free from hunger, in a country so blessed with arable land and natural resources. Unfortunately, both poverty and hunger continue to saturate our country’s landscape. Hunger is both a cause and consequence of poverty, as people on low incomes tend to have worse diets, while people who lack adequate nutrition struggle harder to extricate themselves from poverty. We must begin to address the crushing indices and causes of malnutrition that have continued to deprive over half of our children (and mothers) of a healthy and productive life span.