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NIGERIA: Back in the ranks of the malnourished?

By Helen Ovbiagele

When I saw the headline ’22m malnourished in Nigeria, others’’, my reaction was ‘Not Again!’.  Throughout our civil war, and  many years after it ended, whenever some foreign media houses  wrote anything on Nigeria, they would publish pictures of  badly malnourished people, especially children with Kwashiokor, along with the news item.

While this was necessary during the war to depict the horrors of the impact of the civil war, it wasn’t justified when the war ended and things began to get back to normal, and Kwashiokor cases began to dwindle.  Of course the scars from that war will remain with us for a very long time, as there are many families who haven’t recovered from it, and may never recover from it, but we thank God for bringing it to an end when He did.  Later, the Kwashiokor image was removed from us when wars broke out in other parts of Africa, the Congo, Rwanda/Burundi, Ethiopia, etc, and it was transferred to them.

With Nigeria considered the largest black country in the world, fifth producer of crude oil, and the giant of black Africa, it’s a disgrace to find us back in the rank of the most malnourished.  Who can forget those frightening pictures of  terribly emaciated people with distended stomach, hardly able to get up from the mat or bare ground on which they were laid, and were covered with flies?  The image can still send shivers down one’s spine. It’s a terrible situation for a human being to be in!

‘Over 22 million people, including children, suffer Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM), moderate acute malnutrition, or are at the risk of malnutrition in eight countries in the Sahel, including northern Nigeria.  The eight affected countries, according to Mr. Niyi Oyedokun, an expert in food security and nutrition with UNICEF, D Field Office, covering 10 northern states, are Chad, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Northern Senegal, Northern Cameroun, and Northern Nigeria.’

This expert was speaking at an advocacy and sensitization meeting in Kano with the print media from the ten DFO states, it was reported.  He explained that malnutrition is a condition represented by measures of thinness or bilateral edema, and represents current nutritional status, and that children with severe acute malnutrition are nine times likely to die from any causes than those who are not.

He noted that severe acute malnutrition without intervention has up to 60% mortality risk, and attributed the causes and aggravation for nutrition crisis in the Sahel to scarce rain in 2011 that resulted in poor harvest, and displacement of people and disruption of food production due to conflicts and violence, among others.

Mr. Oyedokun recommended the use of proven high impact and cost effective interventions referred to as the essential nutrition actions, adding that the focus is on promotion of infant young child feeding and essential micro-nurients to prevent occurrence of malnutrition in children with cases of acute malnutrition.’

When you consider the countries we’re sharing this undesirable platform of malnutrition with, you wonder why we should still be there, especially as cases of Kwashiokor have not been reported for many years now.  Also, considering the human and material resources at our disposal to prevent us being one of the statistics.

Have there been cases of Kwashiokor which have been kept under wraps, perhaps for fear of hurting our country’s image on the international scene?  Unfortunately, even though we may not be engaged in publicly declared full scale war, there are sufficient evidences of insecurity of lives and property in our daily lives, and natural disasters like flood and fire outbreaks for us to have citizens who are displaced, and those who are refugees!

These are situations which can easily lead to being malnourished, and if care is not taken, Kwashiokor could become a part of our lives again.  Scarce rain in 2011 which led to poor harvest, was also a cause, we’re told.

Now that the experts have sensitized the nation to this unfortunate matter, what are the authorities going to do about it?  Are our rulers going to collect these reports with a handshake with the experts, put them in a file and forget them?   Or, are they going to invite stakeholders from the three tiers of government to a forum where they would brainstorm on what to do to remedy the situation and take Nigeria out of that undesirable rank?

The report may refer to the Sahel region of which Northern Nigeria is a part, but there’s no guarantee that there are no Nigerians in other parts of the country who are not suffering from malnutrition.

I think it’s time for the relevant experts to make a strong move to attack the root causes:  Law enforcement agencies should handle seriously the issue of constant unrest and destruction of lives and property all over the country, so that we won’t have displaced people/refugees.

I may be wrong, but there seems to be a state of preparedness and vigilance in this area, with every violent incident taking us completely by surprise.  The state and local governments should have concrete plans for combatting flood, and settling flood victims, particularly in flood-prone areas of the country.

We have efficient and experienced meteorologists in the country to predict the weather and floods, and advise the government well ahead of the yearly occurrence.  Provision should be made in the budget of the state and local governments, for provision of  temporary suitable camps, and provision of medical care, food and clothing outfits for likely victims.

Since this seems to be an annual thing these days in those areas, we shouldn’t wait until the floods come before we put rescue plans into action.  Alongside this help, the government should get experts to recommend what can be done to eliminate the flood, or, reduce its impact on the lives of residents in that area.  These people need counselling too on what to do with their valuables like certificates, etc., on a permanent basis, so that they are kept out of harm’s way.

Our food and medical experts from the federal, states and local government areas should get  together to agree on how to educate rural dwellers on their diet; using films, slides, seminars and town criers for maximum effect.

Many years ago in the far north, the UNICEF took the issue of  malnutrition so seriously that apart from going to give talks on cleanliness and diet in the rural areas and small towns, it regularly distributed powdered milk in schools, hospitals, health centres, market places, town halls, etc.

I think the local governments across the country can do this in the relevant communities.  Our country produces soya beans in the north, and we’re told that they are very nourishing as food, drinks, etc.  We have companies which produce these here.  The government should make huge purchases, if it can’t set up factories to produce these, and distribute free to those communities where malnutrition is prevalent. Wards in local government should ensure that they get to the relevant families.  Honest government officials should monitore this.

The affected areas fall under the constituencies of members of  the States’  Houses of Assembly, Federal Parliament, and the Senate.  These politicians should, on their own, do something to bring relief to these people through free supplies of nutritious foods and drinks, talks on sanitation, diet and nutrition, etc. In developed countries, members of  Parliament are passionately concerned about the welfare of  people in their constituencies.  This leads to better quality of life for citizens.

As for poor rainfall/poor harvest, grains like beans, rice, millet, guinea corn, etc., should be brought in by the government and stored in large warehouses, to be sold at highly subsidized prices in the affected areas.  Also, health and food experts should teach residents how to store grains away safely, and regularly remind them to do so every year.

Hopefully, these little steps, if adhered to stringently, might help boot out malnutrition from the country for good.


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