The recent report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) that Nigeria has the highest number of malnourished children in Africa and the second highest in the world should be a source of great concern to the political leaders, policymakers, those who implement them and parents across the country. The country is also said to have the second-highest burden of stunted children in the world, with a national prevalence rate of 32 percent of children under five. In addition, an estimated 2 million children in Nigeria suffer from severe acute malnutrition (SAM), but only two out of every 10 children affected is currently reached with treatment.
The agency in a report that analysed 91 countries, including Nigeria, disclosed that one out of every three children in the country is stunted and one of every ten children is wasted due to not eating the right food combinations. Compounding the delicate situation is the claim that the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting how families feed their children. Its negative impact is such that it has disrupted essential services and thrown most families into the ignoble pit of poverty. According to a recent UN report, COVID-19 has pushed 124 million people back to poverty, chronic hunger.
The report specifically stated that: “Close to 17 million Nigerian children are undernourished, meaning they are not getting the food or nutrients they need to thrive and grow well, leading to irreversible developmental harm”. This throws up some fundamental questions. What is nutritious food? How do we access it for our children and ourselves? What are the roles of parents, the public and private sectors towards enhancing greater productivity, accessibility and affordability to such?
On a general note, nutritious food is undoubtedly man’s most basic need, ranking above shelter and clothing. It is man’s constant contract with life. Simply put, we cannot do without it because it is the fuel that powers the body for everyday’s activities. And it is essential for growth and all-round health too.
Packed full with much-needed nutrients, we utilize the carbohydrates to give us energy, the proteins to build the body cells or replace worn-out ones. Fats and oils, collectively called lipids provide us warmth and sometimes energy when carbohydrates are in short supply. Micro-nutrients or bio-chemicals that are available in smaller quantities such as vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (naturally occurring plant substances that fight disease) play their vital roles by ensuring the general wellbeing of the human body.
Most of them enhance our immunity: protecting us from getting sick when disease-causing micro-organisms (pathogens) find their way into our systems through the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.
Generally, reports on child nutrition in Nigeria claim that around 11 million children under the age of five are still stunted. The figures vary from one geo-political zone to the other, as it is with those from well-to-do and poor families. For instance, there are high figures particularly with regards to levels of stunting in the northeast and northwest and among the poorest quintile.
Stunting is what happens to a child’s brain and body when they do not get the right kind of food or nutrients in their first 1,000 days of life. Unfortunately, it is irreversible.
Though Nigeria has made progress in micronutrient deficiency control, yet about half the children aged 6 to 59 months do not receive vitamin A supplementation. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to a situation whereby a child will be growing up with lower immunity. This can trigger frequent health problems and poor growth.
Both the WHO and UNICEF recommend that babies should be exclusively breastfed during the first six months of life. Sadly, in Nigeria, the rate of exclusive breastfeeding is just 15 percent!
Worsening the situation is the Boko Haram conflict in the northeast, which has further aggravated the nutrition situation. Fields have been destroyed, farmers are afraid to return to their land, and hundreds of thousands of people have fled.
‘In youngsters, a lack of physical activity and bad dietary habits may lead to obesity. At the same time, the absence of vital micronutrients such as vitamin A, zinc, iron or iodine can cause stunting in growth and lower resistance to infection.
According to Rushnan Murtaza, UNICEF Nigeria Deputy Representative, “The findings of the report are clear: millions of young children are not being fed diets adequate for their growth and development.”
The UN health department also said insufficient intake of nutrients to support growth at an early age puts children at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, potentially, death.
“Poor nutritional intake in the first two years of life can harm children’s rapidly growing bodies and brains, impacting their futures. Now more than ever, with the ongoing COVID-19 disruptions, we need to reimagine a food system that improves the diets of young children, including in Nigeria,” the report said.
It also suggests that Nigeria is off-track to achieve the second Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) goal: Zero Hunger by 2030. It has advised that government and its partners can change the trajectory by working “hand-in-hand to increase the availability and affordability of nutritious foods including fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish and meat.
“Implementing national standards and legislation to protect young children from unhealthy processed and ultra-processed foods and beverages, and to end harmful marketing practices targeting children and families.
“Increasing the desirability of nutritious and safe foods through multiple communication channels including digital media to reach parents and children with easy to understand, coherent information.”
Compounding the already delicate situation is the still-raging controversy with a report that over 300,000 children have so far been killed in the Boko Haram war. This report is also coming from the same UNICEF.
The way forward is the enthronement of good governance from the federal through the states to the local government councils. As one has repeatedly canvassed the cost of accessing political power by the parties and the payment structures have to be drastically reduced in line with the prevailing harsh economic situation in the country.
In addition, there should be a frontal, fraud-free approach to the fight against insecurity so that farmers can access their farmlands. It has also become necessary to step up awareness on adequate nutrition right from our homes to our homes and even religious institutions. Parents should also be enlightened on having only the number of children they could adequately cater for.