The Federal ministry of health has come out to say that about 2300 children under 5 die daily in Nigeria with malnutrition accounting for over half of these deaths and has even more recently declared a nutrition emergency in Borno state with increasing concerns over the nutrition status in other states of the North-East.
Malnutrition is increasingly becoming a huge problem in Nigeria, especially the Northern parts with the devastation resulting from years of insurgency and the Internally Displaced Persons camps already being overpopulated beyond their capacities.
The Nigerian government through the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the United Nations International Children’s Educational Fund (UNICEF) and other development partners, both in the public and private spheres are currently doing a lot of work in combating malnutrition and reversing the trend, especially in the North. However, a lot still needs to be done.
But first, it is important to understand what malnutrition is, its effects, the factors that contribute to it as well as possible solutions.
What is malnutrition
Malnutrition is generally defined as a lack of proper nutrition, not eating enough of the right things or being unable to use the food that one eats.
Effects of malnutrition
People who are malnourished, especially children experience a lot of developmental problems as a result of inadequate intake of protein, calories and other nutrients necessary for optimum development. These developmental problems can be short term or long term in nature.
Short Term Effects: development is a life process that takes place throughout the life of an individual and most of this happens during childhood. Malnourishment, especially undernutrition in children can have serious short term effects on the development of a child. Examples include; reduced immunity and increased susceptibility to diseases, diseases resulting from micronutrient deficiencies such as anaemia (iron deficiency), scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) and rickets (vitamin D deficiency) and reduced or slow growth.
Long Term Effects: prolonged malnutrition in children can lead to serious lifelong irreversible effects. Examples of some long term effects of malnutrition include; stunting from limited bone growth, neurological and cognitive disorders such as decreased IQ, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, memory deficiency, reduced language and social skills and reduced problem solving skills, delayed sexual development, osteoporosis and of course, death.
Factors that contribute to malnutrition
There are a lot of factors that can contribute to malnutrition and these have been broadly classified into three (Food, Disease and Lifestyle).
Food: this includes not eating enough food or eating too much of one type of food that cannot provide all the nutrients the body needs.
Disease: chronic illnesses such as cancer, malaria, diarrhea can interfere with the body’s ability to utilize nutrients taken in through food. In addition, mental illness such as depression can also affect the way a person eats or the amount of food eaten. Other health related issues such as parasitic worm infections such as roundworm infections can interfere with nutrient uptake and utilization. So, it is important to deworm children regularly.
Lifestyle: little income/poverty, displacement, breastfeeding practices, lack of sanitation and hygiene, alcohol or drug dependency, social isolation, having limited knowledge about nutrition are all lifestyle and social factors that can contribute in one way or another to malnutrition.
All these factors are interconnected; you cannot deal with one and ignore the others. For example, having little or no income will usually mean little or no food or eating one type of food that is easily accessible. In the same way, lack of sanitation and proper hygiene will lead to an increase in diarrheal and parasitic worm infections just as not eating enough food will predispose a person to both physical and mental illness and the cycle continues.
Short term solutions to tackle the emergency include emergency interventions to provide ready to eat therapeutic foods, nutrient supplements to combat nutrient deficiencies, treatment of diseases that can cause malnutrition such as deworming children etc.
In the long term, Education is a very important factor in combating malnutrition, especially educating mothers on the importance of healthy nutrition and simple cost effective ways of ensuring adequate nutrition for their children such as breastfeeding and combination of local food sources that are easily accessible and give necessary the nutrients in meals as well as simple cost, effective ways to enrich diets. People, especially mothers who are the primary care givers in homes also need to be educated on good hygiene practices such as proper hand washing and sanitation to prevent diarrheal and other diseases. Over the years, Silver Lining for the Needy Initiative has always educated women on and demonstrated the importance of exclusive breastfeeding, good sanitation and proper hand washing as well as regular deworming of children in all of her community programs.
According to Zakari Fusheni, a nutrition specialist in UNICEF Abuja office, “policies need to be put in place to prevent children from dying as malnutrition is beyond poverty and educational status, with more emphasis on the enlightenment of mothers”. Therefore, it goes beyond education and government and institutions should look into formulation of policies that will directly impact nutrition such as breastfeeding friendly policies like extending paid maternity leave and having breastfeeding spaces in the workplace.