With Nigeria having the second highest burden of stunted children in the world, with a national prevalence rate of 32 per cent of children under five, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, nutritionists have raised the alarm that malnutrition is now an epidemic in the country.
Malnutrition, according to UNICEF, is a direct or underlying cause of 45 per cent of all deaths of under-five children.
Sadly, despite the fact that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life offers a unique window of opportunity for preventing undernutrition and its consequences, many Nigerian mothers are not empowered to break the vicious cycle of malnutrition.
According to UNICEF, an estimated two million children in Nigeria suffer from Severe Acute Malnutrition, SAM, but only two out of every 10 children affected are being treated. SAM is the most extreme and visible form of under-nutrition.
Worse still, seven per cent of women of childbearing age in the country suffer from acute malnutrition even as studies show that 10-20 per cent of Nigerian women are undernourished.
These and allied issues have come into sharp focus with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Health experts say malnutrition is a killer, but point out that quite often the cause of death is an infectious disease rather than a direct lack of nutrients. It is the susceptibility to infections such as COVID-19 in people with a suppressed immune system that is of major concern.
In the views of a Professor of Human Nutrition at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Prof Ibiyemi Olayiwola, malnutrition has become a pandemic in Nigeria and anyone can be affected at anytime irrespective of age or gender.
Olayiwola explained that without appropriate care, malnutrition could lead to different illnesses.
“You may have immunity for many conditions but not for malnutrition. If your nutrition is bad, there will be a problem of undernutrition and overnutrition.”
Speaking during the 3rd series Protein Challenge webinar tagged: “Empowering Women to Break the Cycle of Malnutrition in Nigeria: Reduce malnutrition, Underweight and Hunger.”
Olayiwola said malnutrition starts even before a woman conceives if she is not empowered to take in adequate nutritious foods. “If you have a child that is already malnourished from birth, that cycle may continue,” she noted.
Quoting the UNICEF framework for malnutrition, she said there are short term consequences which can lead to many problems like a child falling sick because he or she lacks some nutrients without parents knowing. She said good nutrition helps in poverty reduction, improved national economic performance and nutrition.
“When women are economically empowered, it advances the health, education and economic security of their family and women and girls live a life free from violence. Women empowerment benefits the nation, especially in the nutritional status of all Nigerians.
“Peace and security and humanitarian action are shaped by women’s leadership and participation. More than 350,000 women die from preventable complications related to pregnancy and childbirth each year according to the UN.
Indeed empowerment of women is necessary where there is inequality in access to resources because power has been gendered in Nigeria. “In Nigeria, there is over-concentration of power in the hands of men,” she noted.
Adepeju Adeniran, a clinical physician and public health expert noted that Africans generally fail to fortify their diets because they are farmers.
Adeniran opined that cultures that do not priorities protein intake in their diet exhibit global stunting and inability to reach their growth potential and lack of resistance to some diseases.
In her presentation: “The Role of The Maternal Home Maker in delivering Domestic Nutrition Policies”, she explained the importance of protein for proper growth and development.
“Protein malnutrition manifests in the age groups differently. In children under-5, mild cases can show up as an increased propensity to infections, abnormalities in skin and eye health, poor hair development while more extreme conditions include conditions such as kwashiorkor and marasmus.
“Protein Energy Malnutrition in children has also been linked to a higher risk of non-communicable diseases in adulthood.
She added that even though the role of proteins as the building blocks of the immune system is underrated, practically all systems involved in the immune response are dependent on this.
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Adeniran argued that a diet that is poor in essential proteins increases the risk of being susceptible to viral and bacterial infections.
The cost of protein malnutrition as increased health cost to the individual can be calculated by loss of direct and indirect income, increase in acute illnesses; direct costs to more sick days off days, failure to reach absolute growth potential: loss of potential income from poor educational outcomes when childhood learning is difficult or affected.
“Increase in health care spending from sick individuals, the greater risk to social (local, national or global health security, when individual health is not guaranteed)”
On the key for a nutritional policy, Mrs Josephine Mensah Chukwunweike, a nutritionist and member, Nutrition Society of Nigeria, harped on food availability and affordability.
Chukwunweike called on the government to pay more attention to nutrition for meaningful development.