Nigeria has one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the world. One in seven children dies before their fifth birthday
Half a dozen infants are being treated for different malnutrition diseases at Katsina General Hospital. The number is likely to double with the onset of rains, because severely malnourished children are more prone to such diseases as cholera and malaria.
The World Food Programme (WFP) defines nutrition as “the sum total of the processes involved in the ingestion and utilisation of food substances by which growth, repair and maintenance of the body are accomplished."
Nutritious foods are those food items, including fruits and vegetables, which contain nutrients such as vitamins, protein, carbohydrates and minerals that are required to sustain the body and healthy living.
Conversely, malnutrition is the condition that results from the ingestion of unbalanced diets, in which certain nutrients are deficient. Health analysts say that malnutrition crops up whenever a child is not getting enough food or eating balanced diets.
The consequences of malnutrition can be dire, as the United Nations (UN) Standing Committee on Nutrition asserts that malnutrition is the largest contributor to non-communicable diseases in the world. These diseases can affect the brain, affect the health and can affect the respiratory system, but the most common are gastrointestinal disease.
The physiological manifestation of malnutrition at an early age can induce reduced physical and mental development during childhood
The fifth report on World Nutrition Situation states that "stunting affects 147 million pre-school children in developing countries", while Nigeria is believed to be home to 10 million of such children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), domesticated in Nigeria since October 2003, states that access to good nutrition is a fundamental right, particularly for children under five years.
The growing emphasis on the need for good nutrition has somewhat turned nutrition into a development issue and experts say that no normal child can grow into a healthy, strong and happy adult without the intake of dietary diversification. In specific terms, dietary diversification for children include exclusive breastfeeding for six months, complementary feeding for 24 months and consumption of some food nutrients, such as Vitamin A, iodised salt and zinc supplementation.
Experts insist that these nutrients must be given to a child in the first 1,000 days, including the period of its conception. Uruakpa John, an Assistant Director in the Micro-nutrient Deficiency Control/Nutrition department of the Federal Ministry of Health, emphasised the need to expose a child to these nutrients in the first 1,000 days.
“The first 1,000 days of a child -- from pregnancy to 24 months after delivery – have been identified as the period which presents a unique opportunity to prepare the child for whatever it would become later in life,” he said.
John underscored the wisdom in adopting preventive health care approach, saying that if such approach was adopted, government would spend less in providing curative health care measures, including health facilities, drugs and equipment.
“It has been realised that the only way to reduce mortality and morbidity rates among our children and women of childbearing age is by adhering to the rules of good nutrition which entail the preventive approach,” he said.
John suggested that nutrition education should be reintroduced in the country and given the necessary seriousness it deserved, adding that “prevention is better and cheaper than cure.’’ Dr Davis Omotola, UNICEF Chief of Nutrition, argued that no responsible parent would like to witness the death of his or her child due to avoidable factors. He noted that the Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rate in the area between Sokoto State to Borno State was quite high.
Omotola stressed that assistance from the international community would, however, be required to tackle the malnutrition crisis in states sharing border with Niger Republic, adding that the problem was endemic in Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara states. The UNCEF expert noted that In Katsina State alone, more than 45,000 children who were suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) had received treatment at designated stabilisation centres. Omotola said that 141,043 others were rehabilitated in 11 states across the country last year.
He, nonetheless, bemoaned the non-existence of a specific ministry in charge of development to handle nutrition and allied issues. “The issue of nutrition is a developmental issue. But where is the Ministry of Development?”. Omotola noted that the SAM affecting some Nigerian children could evoke memories of malnourished children in Somalia, Ethiopia and India, in spite of the vast economic resources of Nigeria.
Dr Ibrahim Jimoh, a medical practitioner at the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital in Zaria, explained that of all the childhood killer diseases in Nigeria, “malnutrition account for more than 50% of under-five infant mortality.” He, nonetheless, stressed that the menace of malnutrition could be reduced appreciably if tangible support was given to the various State Committees on Food and Nutrition across the country. Jimoh underscored the need to adopt the preventive approach in efforts to reduce the mortality and morbidity rates among children below the age of five and women of childbearing age.
On his part, Dr Abdullahi Balarabe of the Department of Biochemistry, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaira, emphasised the need to step up nutritional activities, particularly in the northern parts of the country. “Nutritional activities should be increased to eradicate malnutrition in northern Nigeria, considering the fact that the northern part of the country has the highest incidence of malnutrition, if compared to the southern part,” he said.
Children admitted with severe acute malnutrition are given special feeding and therapeutic care to help rehabilitate them. Once they are stabilized and able to be discharged, they’ll be monitored as part of an eight-week programme at an Outpatient Therapeutic Care Programme (OTP).
OTPs are one-stop shops located in the community that provide children with access to both nutritional help and other medical services, including childhood immunizations.
Farming is the main source of livelihood in the North, and the population is highly mobile, enjoying cross-border trade with such states as Niger Republic. Yet, an upsurge in sectarian violence and attacks on churches and schools in the North have threatened the livelihoods of tens of thousands who live there, contributing to what is already a vulnerable situation. To make the situation worst, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, on Tuesday 11th September, stated the possibility of food shortage in part of the North, following the recent flooding experienced.
Although agencies such as UNICEF continue to operate in the region, there is a perceptible nervousness among the population. People are avoiding big cities, and the mobility of farmers and traders is potentially threatened because of security fears. Nigeria is as vulnerable as it is vast.
Disease, poverty and malnutrition are already inflicting a heavy toll despite optimism that this year’s harvest in October will give high yields; the country’s needs are as pressing as those of its neighbours across the parched Sahel.