By Chioma Obinna
Imagine being caught in between two dangerous situations. Imagine not being able to take your child to hospital because you have no money in your pocket. Imagine living in fear because of the activities of bandits. Imagine losing your ancestral home.
Imagine living in an internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camp where meals are not guaranteed. Imagine depending on hand-outs in order to survive and feed your children. Imagine losing your husband in the hands of bandits.
These and more are the situation most children and their helpless mothers in communities across Sokoto, Zamfara States and others are facing amid the outbreak of coronavirus. Meanwhile, experts say these children’s condition may worsen with the outbreak of COVID-19.
According to Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Prof Akin Abayomi, malnutrition could make individuals vulnerable to COVID-19. This submission makes these children vulnerable to COVID-19.
Sunday Vanguard reports that Severe Acute Malnutrition, SAM, is killing thousands of children while their parents are killed by bandits.
“I lost my husband, our lands, properties and other valuables to bandits and now my child is down with malnutrition,” Sa’Ade, 35, told Sunday Vanguard.
For Sa’Ade, her son, Sani Isah, and hundreds of other caregivers and their sick children at Gare Dispensary IDP camp centre and the Sabon-Gari Dole Primary Health Care Centre, both in Goronyo Local Government Area of Sokoto State, life has dealt them a cruel blow as activities of bandits led to malnutrition in their children.
According to the 2018 National Demographic Health Survey, NDHS, Sokoto has the highest prevalence of severe malnutrition in Nigeria with 7.9 per cent of children aged between six and 59 months affected.
Cuddling her 3 –year- old child, alongside other women waiting patiently to be attended to by the medical officers at the Out-patient Treatment Centre, OTC, one of the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, Community Management of Acute Malnutrition, CMAM, at Gare, Sa’Ade narrated how bandits have brought them to their knees.
Precisely 10 months ago, bandits had attacked her village, Kamitau, and, in the process, her husband was killed. Luckily, Sa’Ade, on the instruction of her late husband, had run away with the children on sighting the bandits.
Today, Sa’Ade, who lives in the IDP camp with no husband to fend for her and her child, is struggling to survive.
“It was not a sight to behold. We were all preparing to sleep when we heard that the bandits were already in the village without any prior knowledge”, she narrated.
“My husband, alongside many other men who confronted them, was killed. “My husband asked me to run with my children and that he will be coming behind me but he never made it alive. “We left without a pin. We lost everything to the bandits. All our cattle and foodstuff were taken away”.
Since then, life has not been easy for her and the other women who lost their husbands as relief materials and donations from Non-Governmental Organizations have reduced drastically.
Presently, many of the inmates at the camp sell firewood to put food on the table for their families.
“Sometimes people will come to the camp and give us something but people no longer visit here like before. We go to the bush to cut firewood and sell,” Sa’Ade lamented.
According to the widow, her child’s ordeal started a few months ago with diarrhoea, fever and vomiting.
“I gave him drugs but his condition worsened. He stopped eating and began to lose weight. I was asked to bring the child here for treatment”.
Sani Isah is one of the thousands of children hit by malnutrition in Sokoto and is receiving free malnutrition treatment by UNICEF.
Two weeks after Sani commenced treatment for malnutrition, he has started regaining weight.
Sani Isah and many others at the different centres visited by Sunday Vanguard are being saved today, thanks to UNICEF and partners who funded the procurement of Ready to Use Therapeutic Food, RUTF, used in treating severe malnutrition.
According to the OTP, Officer-in-Charge, Mr Bashir Saidu, at the Sabon-Gari Dole Primary Health Care Centre, CMAM, when the mothers bring their children, they first measure their Mid-Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC).
If it is below 11.4CM, and the child weighs 4 kg and above and has no medical condition, the child will be admitted into the programme.
“For those with medical conditions, we refer them to the In-patients Care Centre, IPC, where they will receive treatment and introduced Therapeutic Milk Formula F-75 and F-100, strategic products used to reduce under-five child mortality from severe acute malnutrition”, Saidu said.
“Once the child’s situation improved and started eating at the IPC, the child will be sent back to the Out-Patient Treatment Centre (OTC) for further treatment.
“Every week when they come, we check their MUAC and weight to see if the MUAC and weight are increasing. If there is no progress after two consecutive visits, we refer them to the IPC.”
According to the UNICEF Assistant Nutrition focal person, Abdullahi Aliyu at the Gare Dispensary IDP Camp, cases of severe malnutrition are commonplace in the communities because most of the women have lost their husbands to bandits.
Aliyu explained that the major factor fueling malnutrition in communities across Sokoto was the inability of the widows to provide foods for their children.
“Many of them are displaced and they cannot get food to eat as NGOs are no longer coming to share foods like before”, Aliyu said.
“Most of the women, who are desperate to survive, resort to the cutting of firewood in the bush to sell.
“The causes of malnutrition for the IDPs are insecurity and poverty because they don’t have farms to farm or alternative businesses”.
The official, who said UNICEF provides them with free RUTF at the centre, disclosed that they see between 15 and 25 new cases of malnutrition every day.
According to him, apart from the ones already admitted, they get up to 130 to 150 new cases every month.
Aliyu stressed that the centre, which opened for treatment of malnutrition in October 2018, serves people in 10 communities.
“We have successfully treated hundreds of children courtesy of UNICEF”, the official said.
Investigation by Sunday Vanguard shows that in 2019, thousands of IDPs living in makeshift camps and amongst host communities in several affected Local Government Area (LGAs) of Sokoto and Zamfara states were displaced by bandits while families were rendered homeless.
Sadly, unlike Borno State, where thousands of NGOs and international organizations have moved in to stabilise the situation, only UNICEF is currently responding to the malnutrition crisis in the two states despite increasing cases of malnutrition there.
For instance, UNICEF, with support from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operation (ECHO) of the European Union and the Primary Health Care Development Agencies of Sokoto and Zamfara, has set up SAM treatment sites in 20 wards, seven in Sokoto and 13 in Zamfara states.
These wards are in 7 LGAs; 3 in Sokoto (Rabah, Goronyo and Sabin Bini), and 4 in Zamfara (Shinkafi, Maradun, Zurmi and Birmingham Magaji) that are badly affected by the violence. All the 20 wards have a high number of IDPs and malnourished children from the IDPs as well as the host communities, currently benefiting from the intervention.
A report from UNICEF shows that about 4,565 and 5,755 children with SAM have been admitted for treatment in Sokoto and Zamfara respectively.
The numbers of children successfully treated in Sokoto were 3,963 and 5,057 in Zamfara.
The report also reveals that the number of pregnant women that received iron and folic acid supplements is 3,716 in Sokoto and 4,706 in Zamfara.
In Sokoto, about 5,688 pregnant women and caregivers of children have received advice on how to take care of their children and feed them to prevent malnutrition.
In Zamfara, about 8, 219 women received same advice. Today the level of malnutrition is gradually decreasing in these communities.
But further investigation reveals that Sokoto State government has not shown enough commitment towards the programme. It was gathered that the 2019 Sokoto State approved budget for nutrition was yet to be released.
Health watchers believe that if this release is made, it will go a long way in strengthening the ongoing UNICEF programmes in the state.
According to the UNICEF Nutrition Supervisor in Sokoto, Mrs Ijanada Jacob, the main cause of malnutrition in the state remains insecurity, ignorance and poverty and many of the women cannot prepare a balanced meal for their children with locally available resources.
However, to make better progress and save more children, there is the need for government and other humanitarian organizations like the World Health Organisation, WHO, and the World Food Programme, WFP, to step in and help. Again, there are fears that with one child consuming at least a carton of RUTF throughout the period of treatment, if the programme funded by ECHO runs out, the continuation of the programme may be affected.