….As experts worry over rising malnutrition cases

The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, says babies’ brain develops at a pace that is never repeated in the first 1,000 days of life.   Unfortunately, in Nigeria, millions of children miss such opportunities due to poor nutrition, resulting in permanent damage even till adulthood. Chioma Obinna writes.

Nigeria has the second highest burden of stunted children in the world, with a national prevalence rate of 32 per cent of children under five. An estimated 2 million children in Nigeria suffer from severe acute malnutrition (SAM), but only two out of every 10 children affected are currently reached with treatment. Seven per cent of women of childbearing age also suffer from acute malnutrition.

Six months after Cecilia Handa, 27, was duly certified married upon completion of the necessary marriage rites, her dream was to begin a family with her husband.   As she desired, a few months later, she became pregnant.  The news of her pregnancy, however, brought enormous joy to the young couple who had been in a relationship for five years before marriage.

Cecilia who was residing in Abuja joined her husband in Benue.  A few months later, fate struck; her husband fell into the knife of a killer herdsman.  Shattered, Cecilia was broken, without a job, she struggle all through the nine months but fate was cruel to her and left her with little or nothing to eat on daily basis.

Nine months after, she delivered a baby boy with low birth weight.  There and then, trouble started and a few months later the child became malnourished.

  Cecilia’s child missed out on adequate nutrition from conception.

The baby’s case is just one out of the estimated 2 million Nigerian children that suffer from severe acute malnutrition (SAM), and only two out of every 10 affected are treated.  

Cecilia is also part of the 7 per cent of women of childbearing age who suffer from acute malnutrition due to poor diets.  

Worst still, global nutrition targets showed that Nigeria is not making progress towards achieving the target of reducing anaemia among women of reproductive age, with 55.1 per cent of women aged 15 to 49 years now affected.

Rising malnutrition cases

However,  the escalating child malnutrition cases in Nigeria  have also been traced to household food insecurity, widespread poverty and exponential population growth, inadequate care and feeding practices, and limited access to health and sanitation services which results in infection and diseases.

Also, the World’s Children 2019: Children, food and nutrition finds 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. This puts them at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, in many cases, death.

Poor feeding practices

The report warns that poor eating and feeding practices start from the earliest days of a child’s life. Though breastfeeding can save lives, in Nigeria, less than 50 per cent of children under six months of age are exclusively breastfed and an increasing number of children are fed infant formula.

This means many Nigerian children are missing out on the life-saving benefits of breastmilk which is a baby’s first vaccine and offers the best possible nutrition at the start of life.

Also, a UNICEF report entitled: “Fed to Fail? The Crisis of Children’s Diets in Early Life”,  one in three children in Nigeria is very small while one in 10 children is wasted and the country is not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 – “Zero Hunger” by 2030.

While food insecurity and violence have continued to threaten adequate nutrition among children and adults at large, scientists say micronutrient deficiencies have been a major cause of malnutrition.

According to the World Health Organisation, micronutrients are vitamins and minerals needed by the body in very small amounts. But their impacts on a body’s health are critical, and any deficiency can cause severe and even life-threatening conditions.

WHO added that micronutrient deficiencies can cause visible and dangerous health conditions, but they can also lead to less clinically notable reductions in energy level, mental clarity and overall capacity that can to reduced educational outcomes, reduced work productivity and increased risk from other diseases and health conditions.

 Findings have shown that low- and middle-income countries like Nigeria bear the disproportionate burden of micronutrient deficiencies.

The WHO says many of these deficiencies are preventable through nutrition education and the consumption of a healthy diet containing diverse foods and food fortification and supplementation, where needed.

Corroborating WHO,  the Manager, of Central and West Africa, (Anglophone countries),  Nestlé Nutrition Institute, Dr Kanalio Olaloku, babies are at risk of developmental delays in pregnant women with iron deficiency and it is responsible for 50 per cent of anaemia cases, cognitive development impairment and reduced physical performance.

It affects normal growth and development in children while inhibiting economic progress and increased healthcare costs.”

According to medical experts, vitamins and minerals, also called micronutrients, are the building blocks for good health. People who do not have enough of these essential nutrients develop micronutrient malnutrition, which can be devastating.

Consequences include serious birth defects, undeveloped cognitive ability, and reduced productivity. Severe micronutrient malnutrition contributes to maternal and infant deaths and childhood blindness.

To address the malnutrition challenges,  UNICEF  recommended that the government, the private sector, donors, parents, families and businesses should help children grow healthy by investing more resources in interventions aimed at preventing malnutrition among young children and supporting treatment when prevention fails,  supporting nursing mothers to adequately feed and care for their children, empowering flies, children and young people to demand nutritious food, including the vision of improved nutrition education and using proven legislation – such as sugar taxes – to reduce demand for unhealthy foods among others.

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