• Friday, June 14, 2024
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BusinessDay

Malnutrition: Nigeria’s silent crisis

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Nigeria is facing a silent crisis with the growing number of children hit by malnutrition, ANIEFIOK UDONQUAK writes.

Twenty four year old Blessing Ekanem   lives in Ikot Oduot , a farming community in Nung Udoe local government of Akwa Ibom State, about  seven kilometres from Uyo, the capital city. Blessing lives with her husband and children but she is distraught and worried about the health of his baby 15-month-old child David. David is battling for his life after coming down with illness since he was 10 months old.

Blessing, dropped out of school in senior Secondary one class.  Her husband, Okon Ekanem is a preacher in the Holiness Evangelical church in the area.

“My baby had diarrhoea when he was ten months old, ‘’ she began the story of her baby’s illness
“We took him to a health centre for treatment,’’ she continued.

“When David did not respond to treatment,  my husband told me  to stop breasting feeding him because the sickness might have been due to breastfeeding and I stopped,’’ she said.

“David began to lose weight and could no longer walk,  we were advised at the health centre to feed David with food with high nutrients but we could not afford the needed food items,’’ said Blessing.
Instead, she continued: “We feed David with evaporated milk mixed with tomato puree with the hope that his health would improve,’’
“We also give him malt to drink,’’ she added.

David is the fifth child of the mother in a polygamous family; his father’s first wife had passed on and left other children behind.

 “When the nurses told us to take David to the teaching hospital and to feed him well, we could hardly afford to do so,’’ she continued.

“We continued to feed him with ‘akamu,’’ a meal usually taken in the morning  prepared from fermented maize.

The plight of David and that of the his parents  shows the  devastating effect of malnutrition in Nigeria which  has recently been brought to the national limelight following the rising incidence of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the north east of the country as a result of the crisis in that of the country.

With thousands of people displaced, the children have become most vulnerable to diseases and mal nutrition has thrown the country into a silent crisis.

Not only in the North Eastern part of the country that malnutrition prevalent.  According to United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) over 2.5 million children under five suffer from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) in the country and are likely to develop complications leading to death if they are not treated.

As a result of the growing cases of malnutrition in the country, 30 percent of children are underweight, meaning they do not weigh enough for their age, according to recent report Nigeria Demographic and Health survey. Indeed Nigeria faces a “silent crisis” as a result of malnutrition among children in the country.

Chris Isokpunwu, a medical doctor and head of nutrition, federal ministry of health says everyday Nigeria loses about 2,300 children under five year olds and 145 women of child bearing age making the country the second largest contributor to the under five and maternal mortality rate in the world

While David has  yet to receive the proper treatment that will help him to be like other children of his age, Iniobong who suffered from the same illness in Etinan, about 12 kilometres south of Uyo, the state capital has fully recovered, thanks to the Global  which  provided Action Meal, Ready to Use Therapeutic Food (RTUF) , a special meal that contains the basic nutrients required for good health.

UNICEF on its part is also providing Ready to Use Therapeutic Food (RTUF) to malnourished children in  some parts of the country but this can hardly go around to all nooks and crannies of this large nation.
“After my daughter fell ill, I realised that she could no longer eat or play like other children of her age,” Iniobong’s mother, Esther said.

 “My baby looks weak and stunted different from other babies born at the same period.

 “Because of her ill health, I couldn’t continue with my hairdressing business and this is affecting my income, my husband  is a motorcycle repairer and does not earn enough money to take care of the family.’

“My child, Iniobong, has been in this state of health for a long time, I have taken her for treatment in different places until I heard of the free medical programme’’ she said.

“Lately, I am seeing some improvement since I started receiving special food from the health centre to feed her.

 Iniobong’s mother, an 18 year old hairdresser had taken her daughter to a free medical programme instituted in the local government area by a politician.
Significantly, malnutrition has been around for a long time but is gaining currency of late in the country. It was this burden of malnutrition among children under five that made the late former lady of Akwa Ibom state, Allison Attah to set up a Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) called Child Development Trust (CDT) to take care of the undernourished children in the state.
Her vision was to “invest in the future of Nigerian children through the provision of comprehensive rehabilitation for the malnourished and improve the physical and intellectual development of children through good nutrition.’’
It did not stop there, her NGO manufactured special food called ‘Alimeal and Alipower’’ to feed the malnourished children in Akwa Ibom State. The result was remarkable as more than 92 percent of the children who received Alipower and Alimeal regained their health.

 But the story is different today in Akwa Ibom State as factory which produced the special food has since folded up and the special meal is no longer produced.  The reason being that  the then first family is no longer in power. The tenure of the then governor has since ended so the programme on providing for malnourished children in the state also came to an end.

It is the contribution of groups and individuals as exemplified by Alison that has helped  in checking malnutrition among children and saving them from complications such as stunting, wasting and death.
Doune Porter, UNICEF chief of communication believes that governments and individuals can halt the increase in the number of malnourished children in the country by supporting efforts by development partners such as that of UNICEF.

“UNICEF cannot be everywhere in the country, we have provided RTUF and we expect both individuals and governments to take off from where we have stopped, ‘’ she said.

Uduak Asuquo, a nutritionist says proper feeding of children under-five years beginning with exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months without water is key to overcoming malnutrition among the infants.

“What we tell them is to do exclusive breastfeeding for six months and then feed their babies with food items from the four star group,’’ she said.

 The group includes food items rich in protein, vegetables, vitamins and minerals which according to her are available in the local diets of every community.

 According to her, children within this age group are usually marked by lack of micronutrients that interfere with growth resulting in illness such as diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections.

 “The onset of diarrhoea makes it a peculiar case and we have to treat such babies first before starting with the feeding programme,’’ Asuquo said.

 The question is ‘how long will children in the country  continue to wait for assistance from ‘outsiders’ before the threat to their wellbeing as a result of malnutrition is addressed.

 As noted by Iniobong’s mother, “after I started feeding my child with Action Meal, I saw a remarkable improvement, but I do not know what will happen when the current stock is exhausted,” this is what should galvanise governments at all levels  to take action.