By Bilkis Bakare- Ogunnubi
Statistics indicate that over two billion people globally suffer from various forms of malnutrition. It is also an underlying cause of death of about 2.6 million children each year, representing about a third of total child mortality globally. And in developing countries like Nigeria, stunting rate- a condition where bodies fail to develop fully as a result of malnutrition- in children is as high as one in three. Nigeria is reportedly home to the highest number of stunted children in the continent and ranks third globally with more than 10 million children. Malnutrition has become a major silent crisis in Nigeria as it contributes to over one third of death in children- half of all child death worldwide- particularly in the first 1,000 days of life. And according to Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, the North East and North West regions, where most foods consumed in the country are produced, have the highest number of cases compared to other regions.
The basic causes of malnutrition are inadequacies of dietary intake, access to food and care for mother and children. The aforementioned key predisposing factors manifest as a result of poverty, food insecurity, crises and inadequate information by parents and care givers on the correct combinations of food for children consumption. It is essential to note that this intergenerational cycle of growth failure starts with the woman. This is due to the fact that the woman bears the major impact of the predisposing factors of malnutrition mentioned above.
Approximately 39 per cent of Nigerians is believed to live below poverty line and children from these poor homes have been shown to be four times more likely to be malnourished than those from rich homes, even though the latter can also be malnourished if the right type of food are not adequately combined. In addition, lack of food security is closely linked to hunger and malnutrition.
The country’s agricultural production has remained on a small scale and largely dependent on rainfall which most times is not predictable. Furthermore, the food distribution system in the country is largely inefficient due to factors such as crop seasonality, inadequate storage technology and facilities, inadequate transport and distribution systems. All these result in considerable variation in food production and availability and consequently malnutrition, mostly in children, particularly the under-fives.
Also, the activities of the insurgents in the North East and North West zones of the country, as well as the actions of the militants in the Niger Delta, have contributed immensely to the high rate of malnutrition rates in the country. This is largely due to the halt in agricultural activities in these regions. The residents are now being confined to refugee camps and made to grapple with insufficient ration of food. There is lack of access to produce, sell and buy food. Women and children under five and the elderly make up the largest percentage of vulnerable population made to bear the burden.
Also, where these foods are available, most times illiterate parents and care givers do not have adequate information on how to properly combine them to achieve optimal results. In addition, family beliefs and community practices affect the type of food a pregnant woman or her child can consume. As a result of this, the mother can suffer from anaemia, while the child undergoes brain damage due to inadequate blood supply, which affects his intellectual capabilities later in life. For instance, it is a taboo in some communities for a pregnant woman to eat snail and nutritional values of snail consumption include the provision of strong bones as well as boosting of the immune system among others. Consequently, if the child resulting from the pregnancy suffers from brittle bones or falls sick from minor ailments, he is said to be afflicted with spell cast by an enemy or the handiwork of evil spirits.
Although, Exclusive Breastfeeding is fast becoming the fad among mothers, particularly in the first six months of life, but subsequently, complementary foods are not introduced at the appropriate time. Statistics indicate that 35% of infants in Nigeria are introduced to supplementary feeding too early and these are often of poor nutritional value. Furthermore, the World Health Organisation recommends that children must be fed with variety of foods, but surveys show that infants are majorly fed with staple foods like cassava and rice, which subsequently result in malnutrition. It is a fact that nutritional wellbeing of all people is a pre-condition for development and a key indicator of progress in human development. Malnutrition not only slows down development, but it also directly leads to suffering and death. Therefore, reducing and subsequent eradication of malnutrition is an important goal a community, albeit a nation ,should aspire to achieve. Therefore, in order to tackle these factors assisting malnutrition to thrive, and also the close relationship that exists between malnutrition and under-development, government at all levels should mobilize additional resources for this purpose.
A lot of resources should be channeled towards boosting agriculture. In addition, governments at all levels should woo young and unemployed school leavers to embrace farming through provision of lands, seedlings, mechanized infrastructure and making access to loan much easier. Not long ago, Dangote Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a commitment of $100million in the next five years towards ending under- nutrition in the country.
•Ogunnubi writes from Lagos.