By Rafiu Ajakaye
Apart from having the world’s largest mortality rate of under-fives, a UNICEF nutrition expert said Nigeria now has at least 35 million severely malnourished children.
UNICEF nutrition experts say the crisis is most prevalent in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe -- the three states in the country’s northeast worst hit by the Boko Haram insurgency. They call the crisis a national emergency which deserves prompt attention.
“One in six children in northeastern (Borno, Yobe and Adamawa) suffer from severe malnutrition. Indeed, one in every two children (50 percent) are stunted in the region,” Davis Bamidele Omotola, UNICEF nutrition consultant, said at a media dialogue on malnutrition in Yola, the capital town of Adamawa, last week.
These are not just figures, experts warned, saying the statistics mean the affected children are either destined for early death or a life of unfulfilled dreams since they are unable to cope in school or any vocation.
“If Nigeria overcomes the menace of malnutrition, 33 percent of poor people will get out of extreme poverty and give their own children a better chance at life,” Omotola said. He added that the cycle of generational poverty may also be broken if proper attention is given to nutrition.
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“There will be grave implications if we ignore malnutrition,” Sesugh Akume, a former spokesman for the #BringBackOurGirls movement, told Anadolu Agency. “This issue must be on top of the agenda if we are serious about the future of this country.”
Martin Jackson, UNICEF nutrition officer in northeastern Bauchi State, said non-profit organizations have done a lot to save the children but such efforts are not enough.
Jackson called on government and the parliaments at the national and state levels to not just allocate enough funds to address the crisis but to also ensure that the funds are released to execute the plan.
But there is more to the crisis than government committing huge funds to fight malnutrition.
Experts have called for increasing awareness among the public on the consequences of malnutrition and how to prevent it.
This begins with giving better education to children, especially the girl child, and empowering women to be economically viable and self-reliant, according to researchers.
“It is proven, for instance, that educated women tend to practice exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months more than those who are not educated. This is the product of education. Such educated women are also more likely to know what kind of food should be given to their children to prevent malnutrition,” Omotola said.
Odoh Diego Okenyodo, a resource person at the media dialogue, said information must get to every segment of the society as government and other stakeholders step up the campaign.
“Information helps build awareness and awareness often leads to people practicing the right behaviors. The drivers of malnutrition lie in the actions that people take or do not,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Geoffrey Njoku, communications specialist at UNICEF, agrees with Okenyodo.
“The problem is not the lack of food in the northeast, for instance. The question is what kind of food and that is where building the capacity of mothers and caregivers becomes very important,” Njoku said.
“Mothers and caregivers will need to know what kind of food is necessary to boost the nutrition level of their children. A child should not be given just one class of food to the exclusion of others,” he added.