The malnutrition crisis facing Nasarawa State is yet another grim reminder of Nigeria’s failure to meet the needs of its most vulnerable citizens. About 30 children in the state have died and 2,000 hospitalized due to acute malnutrition over the past three months. In 2013, the National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) put stunting rates in the state at 34.5 percent, while underweight and wasting rates stood at 20.9 percent and 9.8 percent, respectively. In 2017, it was 37.2 percent for stunting, 20.7 percent for under-weight and 6.8 percent for wasting.
Malnutrition is defined by the World Health Organization as “deficiencies, excesses or imbalances of a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients.” Its main manifestations are stunting (low height relative to age), wasting (low weight relative to height) and being underweight (low weight relative to age).
Nasarawa’s predicament is replicated across Nigeria. About 25 million children suffer from wasting in the country, and an additional 17 million children are stunted due to chronic malnutrition. At least 3.5 million children under five years of age suffer from Severe Acute Malnutrition in the country’s insurgency-ravaged north-east.
The implications for the country are grave. Malnutrition is a condition whose effects are far more deleterious over the long term than most ailments. Those children who survive are likely to be smaller, weaker and less healthy than their peers. Many will suffer from learning and other disabilities and will be more vulnerable to a host of infections and diseases later in life. Nigeria is thus likely to be deprived of the potential contributions of citizens whose capacity to contribute meaningfully to national development has been circumscribed due to no fault of their own.
If this lamentable situation is to be reversed, it will require a comprehensive effort to tackle the causative factors in a holistic manner. Perhaps the place to start is in policy formulation. Although Nigeria launched a National Food and Nutrition Policy and Plan of Action in 2002, current high child malnutrition rates clearly show that it has not been as successful as it should have been. The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) claims that only 156 out of the country’s 774 local governments are implementing extensive nutrition programmes.
A more stringent execution of the 2002 action plan is critical to providing the framework for successful intervention in the child malnutrition epidemic. It provides states and local governments with clearly-outlined measures for tackling the problem and makes arbitrary and uncoordinated responses less likely to occur.
In the immediate short-term, efforts must be made to ensure that all at-risk children are located and treated. Time is of the essence in treating malnutrition, and it is vitally important that patients can be brought in, properly evaluated and put on a Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) regimen which helps to rapidly restore weight. The 15 nutrition centers set up in Nasarawa to fight the malnutrition scourge are clearly inadequate for a state with a population of 1.869 million.
Comprehensive public enlightenment campaigns are another vital element in the battle against child malnutrition because it helps to overcome the ignorance that makes mothers feed their children with the wrong kinds of food. When the populace can easily obtain information about the vital necessity of breastfeeding, regulated diets, recommended foods and methods of cooking, it will be better able to make the right choices.
Enhanced access to cheap and nutritious food is another important strategy. Increases in agricultural output must be translated into greater availability and cheaper prices to enable all citizens to feed their families properly.
Ending the long-running insurgency in the country’s north-east is critical to winning the war against child malnutrition. If farms cannot be cultivated and populations are constantly on the move due to unrest, it is unlikely that malnutrition can be effectively ended.
The sooner a lasting peace arrives, the faster a final victory can be achieved against the despoiler of Nigeria’s precious children.
Source: The Nation News, Nigeria