Merely looking at Baby Miracle, you might be tempted to conclude that she could give up the ghost at any moment. She looked awfully weak and bony, and you could see her ribs from a distance. As she cried, the baby was a perfect picture of acute malnutrition.
Cuddling her grandmother at the Ring Road area of lbadan, the Oyo State capital, she was irritated by any little thing, provoking more moments of crying.
Her story became more shocking when the nutritionist taking care of the patient, the head of Health Promotion and Nutrition Office, Oyo State, Kadijat Alarape, announced that the baby had improved, compared to when she was picked up by her team.
It was gathered that the child, who weighed 2.9 kilogrammes at the time she was discovered in her pathetic state, has steadily improved to 3.6kg in two weeks. After one month, her weight had increased to 4.5kg She was closely monitored and persistently given soya flour, milk and pap meals.
The baby’s mother was struck with an undisclosed illness that prompted her relatives to take the daughter from her, leaving Miracle in the hands of her grandmother. But the old woman had no means of livelihood. She could only give her granddaughter what was available with little or no nutritional value.
Miracle is one of over 17 million babies suffering from one form of malnutrition or the other. Despite the fact that there have been repeated calls to parents and caregivers to treat adequate nutrition as the right of every child, the ugly trend continues unabated. Experts have accused those who failed to provide their children with adequate nutrition of violating one of the fundamental rights of their children and further exposing such kids to the risk of stunting, which could jeopardise the victims’ future.
Another pathetic case was that of the Adebanjos (not real name). In their case, three children of the same parents were distorted by stunting. The worst hit among the three was the eldest, aged seven, who was about the same height with his younger, five-year-old twin sisters.
When their mother was asked how she fed them while they were babies, she said she couldn’t vividly remember the exact foods she gave them with, but admitted that they were exposed to solid foods in their early stage. She revealed that she had never been aware of the nutritional value contained in the foods, therefore, wouldn’t know where she erred.
It was recently disclosed in Ibadan, at a workshop organised by the United Nation Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in collaboration with the Ogun State government, that an estimated 17 million people under the age of five in Nigeria have their bodies and minds limited by stunting.
Stunting is a life sentence, while wasting is a death penalty, said a UNICEF nutrition expert, Ada Ezeogu.
Those two striking words represent calamities in different proportions. Stunting, as Ezeogu explained, is an abrupt stop in the growth and overall development of a child due to lack of the basic nutrients. It becomes a life sentence in the sense that it is impossible to reverse. Stunting happens when a child is too short for his age and fails to achieve his own genetic potential for height.
Wasting, on the other hand, according to Ezeogu, is when a child suffers acute malnutrition, which affects both his growth and weight, and exposes him or her to different infections. If there is no swift intervention, death is inevitable within a few weeks or months, as the case may be.
She lamented that stunting was common among newborns and children under the age of five, saying it had become a public health problem in the South West and other parts of Nigeria.
There are a number of factors responsible for malnutrition but, according to experts, ignorance and poverty appear to be the most dominant, sentencing many families to their early graves and into doom daily.
Malnutrition poses a huge burden on the present and future of all sectors of the economy across the country. Many studies have linked low productivity to deficiency in certain necessary nutrients for proper human development.
Investigations reveal that malnutrition in the first 1,000 days of life (right from the womb) could mar the development of a child. Adequate nutrition of a mother before, during and after pregnancy is a major determinant of a baby’s wellbeing and goes a long way in preventing stunting in infants.
It may sound strange to the uneducated and uninformed but it has been proven scientifically that maternal nutritional and health status before, during and after pregnancy affects a child’s early growth and overall development in their adult life.
A general practitioner based in Lagos, Martins Adebowale, in a telephone conversation with the reporter, expressed the need to shift attention to adolescent education as the foundation for adequate nutrition in the first two years of a child.
“An expectant mother can always practise what she knows. This is different from the traditional education that we all acquire, but adequate nutrition information from the right source. For example, some quack nurses in some private hospitals still advise nursing mothers to supplement breast milk with water and baby formula.
“We must educate our women and their husbands that they need to plan for every pregnancy. When pregnancies are properly prepared for, the adolescent girl, even before conception, would be adequately nourished because she wants her foetus to be healthy. She does this because she knows that is where nutrition education comes in,” he said.
He identified some of the factors responsible for stunting and wasting as short birth spacing; suboptimal infant and young child feeding practices; frequent and severe childhood infectious diseases and other conditions that reduce absorption of important nutrients; poor environmental sanitation and personal hygiene.
Ezeogu, on her part, added: “At that stage of delivery, all of the nutrients that the baby requires are contained in the breast milk and it is sufficient for the baby at that stage. After six months, the baby is still growing; hence, the breast milk is no longer enough to meet its nutritional needs.”
It has been disclosed that intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) due to maternal under-nutrition accounts for 20 per cent of the global burden of child stunting. IUGR has often been blamed for rates of low birth weight in new babies.
Out of the estimated 17 million children under age five suffering from stunting in Nigeria, the South West has a rate of 19.4 per cent, according to UNICEF’s statistics. The number is higher than that of the South East and South South.
Ezeogu stated that stunted children are diminished in cognitive and physical development, productive capacity is reduced, while the child risks poor health and future degenerative diseases such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension and type 2 diabetes, among others.
“After conception, it is important for pregnant mothers to attend antenatal clinic regularly, where they are educated about adequate nutrition necessary for pregnant mothers,” Ezeogu said.
On the birth of the baby, the nutritionist said breast milk must be introduced to the new baby in the first 30 minutes during which the baby would be given the opportunity of getting colostrum, which is the baby’s first natural immunisation against all forms of diseases because it is high in antibody contents and vitamin A.
“When it is time to introduce food to the baby, the complementary food must be rich in nutrients, which should come from different food groups – carbohydrates, proteins, fat, among others.
“The thickness of the food should be increased as the child gets older. It should also be of varied food nutrients as the variety matters. The food should include legumes, animal proteins, carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, but must be in mashed form that will be easy for the baby to take. It should, however, not be watery and should be given to the baby with spoon,” she said.
At the Ibadan forum, the Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Ogun State, Adedayo Adeneye, said, from the overview of the national nutritional level, 80 per cent of the world’s stunted children live in 14 countries. Nigeria stands as the second largest contributor, after India, he noted.
Highlighting the extent of the burden posed to Nigeria by stunting, Adeneye said, based on available data, children that are underweight in the country have in recent time scaled up from 25 per cent to 32 per cent while stunting rose from 34.5 per cent to 43.6 per cent.
He called for the participation of stakeholders at all levels in overcoming the nutritional challenges prevalent within the South West region.
Adeneye noted that it was sad to discover that Nigeria’s nutrition status has not improved for the past 10 years. According to him, a high percentage of the young children in Nigeria is either undernourished or micro-nutrient deficient, while some even suffer from over-nourishment, otherwise called obesity.