Borno, UNICEF
File: Malnurished children Photo used to illustrate the story

By Chioma Obinna

GOAL 2 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is ending hunger by 2030. It also requires the world to ensure that all people have access, particularly, the poor and people in vulnerable situations including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round.

As part of measures to attain the targets of this goal, United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and other health agencies recommend  adequate feeding and nutrition for neonates within the first 1,000 days of life, particilarly from conception to the second year of life so as to prevent  malnutrition and other adverse health conditions. 

But the sad story of Nigerian children and malnutrition seems not to be ending very soon as the country parades a status of second-highest burden of stunted children in the world with a national prevalence rate of 32 percent of children under five. 

Poor diets

Good Health Weekly reports that poor diets among others is threatening Nigerians efforts to achieve SDG 2 as well as damaging Nigeria children’s health.

Undoubtedly, every child needs proper nutrition to grow and develop.  Studies have also shown that good food does more than keep a child alive and well. 

Rather, it also  allows the child to fulfill his  or her rights as  enshrined in the Child  Rights Acts – to live,  learn, , play,  participate and contribute to their world. 

Question is whether Nigerian children are getting the right foods that will enable them enjoy these rights?  With new estimates from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO, showing that 19.4 million Nigerians are at risk of food insecurity between June and August 2022, if no action is taken urgently, will Nigeria meet the nutrition needs of its citizens, particularly women and children to meet the 2030 target? 

Unfortunately, findings by Good Health Weekly revealed that the answers to these questions may be far-fetch as many Nigerian children are suffering due to consequences of poor diets which results to malnutrition, undernutrition, over nutrition.

Such is the plight of Farouk Ibrahim.  At 6, Farouk can be mistaken for a three-year old child. This is because his height is not the same as the height of his age mates. 

Born into a family of seven, Farouk and his siblings are not fortunate to enjoy three square meals on daily basis.   No thanks to the unending insecurity in their community.

Insecurity

Farouk’s problems started right from conception as his father died while his pregnancy was yet to be broken to him. Life was not easy for his mother, Kafiyat Ibrahim, who had earlier given birth to five children before her husband was killed by insurgents right inside their bedroom. The singular incident worsened their already bad situation. 

With the absence of the bread winner of the family, his mother who had just discovered she was pregnant, could hold back her tears but forged on, hoping for the better. Without any meaningful job, her mother decided to keep the pregnancy. 

Few months after the demise of his father, hardship set in. Their situation was compounded as they were displayed from their ancestral home. 

Throughout the nine months period, his mother never had a decent meal talkless of attending the required antenatal clinics.  Like a sheep without shepherd, Farouk’s mother gave birth to him at home.   

No thanks to poverty, Farouk was denied the needed nutrients within the first 1,000 days of his life which medical experts say starts from conception. His mother did not adopt exclusive breastfeeding. According to her, she was not feeding well. 

“Farouk’s life is a miracle.  We had nobody assisting us.  At two weeks, I started giving him pap without milk.  Even now, we are still struggling to survive.  We were forced to live our home to come to Maiduguri town but life has not been easy. I’m still grateful that he survived,” Kafiyat said.   

Today, Farouk is stunted and is among the 37 percent stunted Nigerian children aged between 0 to 59 months. According to the 2018 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, NDHS, 7 percent of the children are wasted (thin for their height); 22 percent are underweight (thin for their age); and 2 percent are overweight (heavy for their height).

The report also revealed that across the country, prevalence of stunting differs.  It showed that stunting is most prevalent in the North West with 57 percent of children under five in the region are stunted and least prevalent in the South East with 18 percent stunted. 

Undernourished children.

The  2019  State of the World’s Children Report on Children,food and nutrition,  a publication of UNICEF, found that at least 1 in 3 children under five (200 million) is either undernourished or overweight.

It also added that almost 2 in 3 children between six months and two years of age are not fed food that supports their rapidly growing bodies and brains and this puts them at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, in many cases, death.

The report warned that poor eating and feeding practices start from the earliest days of a child’s life. 

Nutritionists say that, if children don’t get enough nutrient-dense food, they may end up not attaining their full potential in life.  This they say will put the future of the country at risk as a healthy nation is a wealthy nation.

They argued that the waste of potential in individuals and countries can be prevented, as long as the causes are properly understood and addressed. 

For them, it is one of the reasons the United Nations’ goal is to end malnutrition by 2030. Before that, by 2025, it aims to achieve internationally agreed targets on stunting and wasting in children under five years of age.

In the views of a Nutrition Officer with the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, Nkeiruka Enwelum, poor nutrition contributes largely to high rate of child mortality.

“When an expectant mother does not feed well, it affects the unborn baby. So, poor nutrition in 1,000 days from conception of a child to two years of age results in permanent damages.”

Enwelu while highlighting poverty as the major factor causing malnutrition and affecting the well-being of a child, she regretted that Nigeria remains off track to achieving the SDGs target to ensure adequate nutrition for children and women.

Poor nutrition

She said 45 per cent of the child deaths are as a result of poor nutrition, stressing the need for good nutrition for the survival of a child.

In her Presentation entitled, ‘Child Malnutri­tion: Situation In Nigeria: An Overview,’ she said children under the age of two are most vulnerable to all forms of malnutrition – stunting, wasting (low weight for height), micro­nutrient deficiencies, over­weight and obesity.

“This is as a result of poor diets, due to their greater need for essential nutrients per kilogram of body weight than at any other time in life.” 

She explained that with childhood stunting which is undernutrition (a child too short for his or her age) affected children may have a long-term effect on physical development, cognitive development, educational performance and economic productivity in adulthood. 

It can also affect women’s ability to give birth to normal weight children.

Loss of GDP

For a country, stunting can also holds back the productivity of nations and creates economic and social challenges among vulnerable groups.

She said Nigeria loses income for households and up to 15percent GDP loss due to malnutrition.

Declaring that the nutrition situation of the country is worrisome, she said there was need for strategic action to tackle the problem. 

She said preventing malnutrition will save $120 used to treat malnutrition through Integrated Management of Acute Malnutrition (eight times the cost of prevention)

“It costs $15  to prevent malnutrition through the delivery of high impact nutrition interventions and failure to prevent and treat malnutrition can result in long term cognitive and growth impacts, increased morbidity and potential death.” 

On good nutrition, the UNICEF Nutrition Officer, noted that the “plan” for the body is in the DNA and all the “building materials” come from food and water which are called nutrients.

“When the body does not get the right nutrients it needs, substitution occurs, which leads to negative consequences. The body must get the right nutrients at every stage of life.

Stating that Nigeria ranks first in Africa and 2nd in the world in terms of the number of children malnourished, she stressed the need to accelerate progress for stunting and anaemia/

“Statistics have shown that 24 million people are anaemic and 14 million stunted and 14.5 million people suffer from acute food insecurity, 25 million people are hungry.” 

Good nutrition

Stressing the need for micronutrients, she said deficiencies often referred to as hidden hunger can cause anaemia due to lack of iron, tiredness/weakness, vitamin A deficiency can cause a type of blindness, and calcium deficiency that causes weak bones.

“Good nutrition is beneficial to all of us and is achievable for all Nigerians,” she stated. 

For a lecturer at the University of Science and Technology, Enugu, Dr. Chidi Ezinwa, the non implementation of the SDGs affects the well-being of the child.

Ezinwa who spoke during a workshop on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) organised by UNICEF in conjunction with the Child  Rights Information Bureau of the Ministry of Information and Culture in Enugu, said fulfilling children’s right is considered a prerequisite for realizing the SDGs and one cannot be achieved without the other. He said promoting and protecting children’s rights will accelerate and catalyze SDGs.

Noting that malnutrition infringes on the child rights to life, proper nutrition, health and quality education, he added that 144 million children under age 5 were affected by stunting in 2019, with three quarters living in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

“In 2019, 6.9 per cent (or 47 million) children under 5 were affected by wasting, or acute under    nutrition, a condition caused by limited nutrient intake and infection.” 

Highlighting the importance of SDGs in ensuring the rights of children, he stated that Goal 3 which is Good health and well being said 19.4 million children did not receive the essential vaccines during the first year of life.

He said SDGs cannot be realised without fulfilling the rights of children which includes ensuring that they have good nutrition for better growth and development. 

To address the growing child malnutrition crisis, the experts stressed the need for proper feeding of children and promotion of micronutrients. 

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