As the main cause of child mortality, the authorities should work to tackle malnutrition in Nigeria 

The ranking of Nigeria as first in African and second globally by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organisation (WHO) among countries with the worst malnutrition cases is another disturbing development. According to the UNICEF report, “Fed to Fail? The Crisis of Children’s Diets in Early Life”, one in three children in the country is diminutive and one in 10 children is wasted. Some of the factors identified include poor infant feeding and attitude of mothers to exclusive breastfeeding. While there have been some improvements in the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the country, it is still far below the global standard of 50 per cent. 

While reports like this should worry all critical stakeholders in our country and compel action, there is no sign that the authorities appreciate the gravity of the situation. Yet, unless government, at all levels, as well as other critical stakeholders take immediate steps to address hunger and malnutrition, especially in children and pregnant women, the poor indices on maternal and child mortality in our country will only further worsen. That precisely is the challenge of the moment. 

Recent data from the Nigeria Demographic Health Survey (NDHS), for instance reveals that millions of newly-born in Nigeria lack essential nutrients and antibodies that would protect them from diseases and death. “NDHS survey indicates that we have not made any remarkable improvement in terms of nutrition and this gives us the impression that we may have a humanitarian crisis while we are not at war”, said Kamil Shoretire, National Project Manager, Accelerating Nutrition Result in Nigeria (ANRiN), who disclosed that about 15 million Nigerian children are malnourished and stunted. 

Sadly, 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 in Nigeria.Meanwhile, stunted growth 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. The costs of disregarding this issue in human and economic terms cannot be quantified. According to the WHO, stunting figures above 40 and wasting above 10 are critical and should be considered an emergency. That sadly is the situation we are in today in Nigeria. 

Political commitment is therefore necessary to ensure advocacy on the adverse implications of malnutrition and avoid its devastating consequences. Partnership with civil society and academic institutions with focus on food and nutrition is also an imperative while there should be a commitment to establishing 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, mobilizing communities for action on the growing more beneficial foods, and the perils of malnutrition. 

For effective health and social protection, mothers must also be encouraged to adopt exclusive breastfeeding habits for their babies for the first six months. Thereafter, complementary feeding can be introduced for 24 months, then the consumption of various nutrients such as Vitamin A, iodized salt and zinc, amongst others. Nigerians, as a minimum, deserve a life free from hunger, in a country so blessed with arable land and natural resources. 

From all the available reports, our governments, at practically all levels, need to sit up by addressing 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. 

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