How rising insecurity, violence worsen malnutrition in Nigeria
File: For the purpose of illustration only

… as 1 in 3 children stunted — REPORT


By Chioma Obinna


AT the paediatric clinic of a government-owned hospital located in South-West zone Nigeria, a new trend in the health status of children in Nigerian has emerged.


The cries of these little are comparable to the screeches of a squirrel, could shatter a stony heart. Some of them have lost so much weight their ribs can be counted. Thanks to the doting mothers who against all odds are hoping for miraculous healing.


From the worst community in the South to the North, the situation is the same as findings show that the escalating insecurity and insurgency have exacerbated the already unacceptably high burden of childhood malnutrition.


Burden of malnutrition
The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and the World Health Organisations, WHO, rank Nigeria first in Africa and second in the world among countries with the worst malnutrition cases.


A UNICEF report released in 2021 entitled: “Fed to Fail? The Crisis of Children’s Diets in Early Life”, Nigeria was ranked second in the global malnutrition burden with 17 million undernourished children.


According to the report, 1 in 3 children in Nigeria is stunted and 1 in 10 children is wasted, setting the country off-track to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 – “Zero Hunger” by 2030.


From the 2018 National Demography Health Survey, NDHS, 37 per cent of Nigerian children aged between 0 to 59 months are stunted, 7 per cent are wasted (thin for their height); 22 per cent are underweight (thin for their age), and 2 per cent are overweight (heavy for their height).


According to the NDHS, South West has less than 7 per cent (6.8) of Global Acute malnutrition and moving up North, it is direr with North West showcasing 57 per cent in stunting. Only the South East fared a little low with 18 per cent of children stunted.


Notwithstanding, Nigeria is in a dire situation as the COVID-19 disruptions coupled with the escalating insecurity nationwide are worsening the purchasing power of Nigerians.

Deepened poverty in communities and herdsmen activities have totally driven farmers away from the farms. Today, food insecurity is the order of the day. Cases abound in States like Benue known as the food basket of the nation and no week passes without news of suspected killer herdsmen killing or attacking communities. In fact, it has become a common occurrence in Nigeria today. If it is not the news of herdsmen killing, it will be unknown gun men or the case of kidnapping.


Sadly, evidence abounds that harmless Nigerian children are already bearing the effect of the situation as many are coming down with Severe Acute Malnutrition, SAM.


Four- years -old Ademola Adebayo was one of the babies at the children’s centre, his tears keep rolling but hardly could anyone 2 meters apart hear him.


His skinny skin and pale face can draw tears from anyone. His mother held me so tight in total confusion and sorrow. It was written all over her that the situation was becoming helpless.


Ademola’s mother, who hawks packaged water at the popular Idi-Oro Market, in Mushin, Lagos, says life has not been easy as she lost her husband during the COVID-19 lockdown.


Ever since, she has been the breadwinner of the family. “I spent most of my savings during my husband’s burial and now no one to assist us. My other two children can no longer return back to school as they now assist me at the bus stop. Now that I am here, they are helping out,” she said in tears.

Effects of insecurity
Like Ademola, Mustapha Suleiman, who is just 6 months old, has shown symptoms of malnutrition such as saggy buttocks, body weakness, and leanness with a sunken fontanel.


Fatimah, Mustapha’s mother said the infant was diagnosed with failure to thrive a form of malnutrition in children under six months old. At the time of filing this report, he weighed 2.7 kilos, a weight too low for his age.


Fatimah claimed ignorance of the condition until her child was referred to a UNICEF malnutrition centre in Sokoto.


Her words: “Suleiman became sick after we were sacked from our ancestral home by bandits. We lost our lands, properties and other valuables to bandits and now my son is sick. Bandits attacked our village, Kamitau, about 12 months ago.


For Fatimah, Suleiman, and other mothers and ailing infants at Sabon-Gari Dole Primary Health Centre in Goronyo Local Government Area of Sokoto State, it was double blow.

While the activities of bandits persist, their children are struck with malnutrition as they can no longer afford decent meals for the better growth and development of their wards.


The 2018 National Demographic Health Survey, NDHS, shows that Sokoto State has the highest prevalence of severe malnutrition in Nigeria with 7.9 per cent of children aged 0-59 months are affected.


These and more are the situation most children and their helpless mothers in communities across are facing amid the disruptions caused by the outbreak of COVID-19.


Experts say these children’s condition may worsen with the recent report by the United Nations showing that 14.5 million Nigerians require urgent assistance to address their nutrition needs.


Further, the report projected that between June to August 2022, the number of vulnerable populations may rise to 19.5 million (12.3 per cent) of the overall population, unless conscious efforts are made to provide strategic resilience-focused interventions and humanitarian assistance in areas where necessary.


Today, Severe Acute Malnutrition, SAM, is killing thousands of children even as their parents are killed by insurgents.


A meat seller at the Cele Market along the Mile 2 Oshodi expressway in Lagos, a cow that was sold for N240,000 as of December 2021, is now sold for N350,000 almost 100 per cent increase.


A paint of garri that is locally produced in Nigeria is sold for N1,000 depending on the area it is being purchased. Prices of beans, vegetables, fresh tomatoes, melon, plantain, and crayfish among others have all skyrocketed.


Apart from the fact that the naira has continued to depreciate against the dollar, many farmers and traders who spoke on the issue, attributed the prices of the local produce to insecurity occasioned by activities of bandits, insurgency and herdsmen that have driven farmers from the farms and the little ones produced cannot be circulated as people are being careful travelling with their goods to distance places.


“I used to go to bush markets where we go to buy and sell at least three times a week but now I manage to go for once because sometimes we are attacked and your money collected and sometimes you may not have enough money to buy. What you bought N20,000 now by evening you will be buying it for N25,000. Nothing is stable,”Bola, foodstuff seller said.
Experts react


To change this trajectory, concerned stakeholders say it is time to act and reimagine not just food, but health and social protection systems for Nigerian children.


In the views of the United Nations Children’s Fund, Nutrition Officer, Nkeiruka Enwelum, Nutrition Officer, the nutrition situation of Nigeria is worrisome and requires strategic action and good nutrition is beneficial to all and achievable for all Nigerians.


Enwelum regretted that Nigeria was lagging in implementing key life-saving nutrition interventions including iron, folic acid supplementation and the initiation of breastfeeding which should be done within one hour of delivery.


Warning that poor nutrition in the first 1,000 days from conception of a child to 2 years of age results in permanent damage, she said: “Failure to prevent and treat malnutrition can result in long term cognitive and growth impacts, loss of income for households and up to 15 per cent GDP loss for Nigeria, increased morbidity and potential death.”


Consequences


Enwelum noted that when a child is not well-fed results in malnutrition which also exposes them to disease, resulting in impaired brain development, lower intelligence quotient and premature death.


“Malnutrition in children could result in a weakened immune system, leading to increased risk of infectious diseases. The risks of non-communicable diseases, NCDs, such as diabetes, cancer, stroke, and hypertension also abound for the malnourished baby.


It is not only in childhood but also in adult life. It can also result in lost productivity and increased healthcare costs.”


Poverty, insecurity dangerous twist
In a chat with Vanguard, an Assistant Director, Dietetics, Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital (OAUTH), Ile Ife, Dr Obinna Ogbonna said poverty and insecurity are classified as the underlying causes of malnutrition, especially undernutrition.


Ogbonna confirmed that insecurity has led so many farmers to abandon their farms uncultivated and those who defiled the insecurity and ventured into farming cannot go safely to harvest the produce.


“A cite in hand is the current situation in Benue, Born, Zamfara States and some other parts of the country where farmers are killed in their farms and other incidences in Enugu State where Fulani herdsmen with their cattle destroyed vast farmlands and their crops.”


He said this threat had made many farmers abandon their farmlands and their crops which invariably would lead to low harvest with its ultimate consequences as food scarcity.


Ogbonna said poverty will be palpable when farmers and their family members are not usefully engaged and the farm produce are not there to be sold. “This will invariably affect their income and their ability to buy their desired foods. If this phenomenon is allowed to persist, it will definitely expose them to poverty.”


He said when there is no access to food or an inability to afford the expensive few available foods due to scarcity as occasioned by the fear of going to the farm or markets it would spark a vicious cycle in the community or society as the cash flow would be affected.


“Lack of or inadequate food and cash will eventually lead to malnutrition. The type of malnutrition here is undernutrition which was created as a result of inadequate food/ nutrient intake as evidenced by lack of money or poverty.


“There is a need to tackle insecurity in order for the farmers to go back to the farm and boost the nutritional status of all Nigerians, particularly the children who are most affected.”

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