Malnutrition: Why UNICEF’s latest report on children should be taken seriously

Nigerian children are at the risk of losing their lives if the recent report by the global body, UNICEF, is anything to go by; IDACHABA SUNNY ELEOJO writes.

Recently, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) revealed that a total of 133 million Nigerians out of the entire population live in abject poverty. This revelation not only startled many people, it left many wondering ‘where do we go from here?’ While Nigerians were still grappling with the realities of the NBS report, another report was released which has traumatised concerned Nigerians.

The UNICEF report

A few days after the NBS report, the concern was further heightened by another report from the United Nations Children Education Fund (UNICEF) in which the global body disclosed that due to hunger and malnutrition, at least three million children die daily in the country. It, therefore, called for increased funding, logistics and other measures that could help in arresting the challenge before it consumes everyone.

According to UNICEF, Nigeria loses no fewer than 100 children per hour due to malnutrition; a development that translates into at least 2,400 deaths daily.

This disclosure was made in Lagos recently during an interaction the global body had with media executives. At that parley, UNICEF’s chief nutrition officer in Nigeria, Nemat Hajeebhoy, noted during the National Council on Nutrition, chaired by the vice-president, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, that Nigeria was moving towards what she called nutrition emergency.

She was of the opinion that one-third of children in Nigeria suffer from what he called severe food poverty.

She said, “Poor diet is robbing millions of children of their health, development and lifetime prospects because every hour, almost 100 children under the age of five die in Nigeria. Left untreated, children with severe acute malnutrition are nearly 12 times more likely to die than a healthy child. Nigeria is ranked number one in Africa and second in the world in terms of malnourished children.

“This is not the kind of statistics we should be proud of. Without urgent action, UNICEF estimates that approximately 14.7 million children under age five would suffer from moderate and severe acute malnutrition in the coming year.”

She added that, “Nigeria signed the convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991 and access to good nutrition is an important right of every child. In 2003, Nigeria signed the Child Rights Act and 29 out of 36 states have strong Child Rights Act. If we have all of these in place, what are we doing about the right of these 21 million children to good nutrition?”

The recall

This development is though no longer news in Nigeria because way back in 2017, the wife of President Muhammadu Buhari, Aisha, in collaboration with some lawmakers had embarked on a campaign to end hunger, especially of children in Nigeria.

While making reference to the initiative of Mrs. Buhari, UNICEF said this year that an estimated 2.5 million children in the country under the age of five suffer from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) every year. Its report showed an extremely dangerous condition that made children more likely to die from common childhood illnesses like diarrhoea, pneumonia and malaria.

The president’s wife, who established her ‘Future Assured’ campaign to end child malnutrition in the country some years back worked with other stakeholders like the wife of the vice president, Dolapo Osinbajo, wives of governors, government agencies, UNICEF and other partners to advocate for improved healthcare and nutrition for women and especially children.

Investigation reveals that on a large scale, the problem of malnourished children is not peculiar to any particular region in the country even though it is more widespread in northern Nigeria.

A paediatrician and health expert, Dr. Tunrayo Akpe, told Blueprint Weekend that severe cases of malnutrition can cause growth deficiencies in children.

“It can lead to stunting, leaving children physically and/or mentally under-developed for the rest of their lives. Over 11 million children in Nigeria are stunted. This is a huge drain on the future of the future leaders of this country. No serious society thinks less about her children, especially their health and nutrition,” she said.

According to her, children suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition need medical attention. Besides, she said there is a new method of treating malnourishment in children as introduced across the country way back in 2009 which many states especially in the north have adopted.

“This Community-based Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM) programme has treated over two million children since it was first introduced in Nigeria at a cost of just US$160 per child. I however cannot tell you if it is still sustainable, especially these days that for every lapses, the government would put the blame on Covid-19 and global economic malaise.”

Wither schools feeding programme?

Although the federal government through the schools feeding programme of the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management has, according to them, been feeding selected school children since its inception in 2017, investigations revealed that its impact is likened to a drop of water in an ocean.

Speaking exclusively on this matter, a teacher in one of the LEA Primary School in Dutse located in Bwari Area Council of FCT who for obvious reasons did not want her name mentioned told Blueprint Weekend that as far as the school feeding programme is concerned, it is a programme designed to purloin fund for inexplicable reasons.

“This is LEA Primary School in Sagwari Dutse where I have been teaching for almost five years now. We were excited when news of the feeding programme came, but I can tell you that not a day has the children been fed here. In other places where we heard pupils are being fed, what we heard was that the meal is not what anyone can consider a balanced diet. So if UNICEF says children are dying due to malnutrition, they have their facts.”

A parent, Elder Emmanuel Ulasi told Blueprint Weekend that it’s true that the school he teaches in Kwali once benefited from the scheme, but that in late 2020 immediately schools resumed after Covid-19.

“It seemed my school was used to test-run or used as a pilot scheme for the feeding programme because when they started, it was daily for a month, but shortly after, it stopped. The contractor said she was asked to stop so that they can test-run in other schools. Since then, no one has seen them again. Even then, considering the number of pupils, it wasn’t possible to sustain the policy due to cost. Mostly, it was one egg served with bread and sometimes served with moin moin. Another time, it was rice with a small, tiny piece of meat that the pupils scramble to get a pack. I don’t even think the government was sincere in its implementation,” Elder Ulasi said.

We mean business – Govt

On the reality of the children wing being fed by the government or otherwise, the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management said it has and is still accomplishing the mandate of intervention and schools feeding agenda given to it by the president.

The minister, Sadiya Umar Farouq, said apart from enriching the future leaders of Nigeria with better nutrition, it has taken millions of children off the streets.

The minister represented by a deputy director Legal Services in the ministry, Mr. Sunday Okoh, at an event in Calabar had noted that they are on top of the situation.

He said the school feeding programme is adequate and of quality nutritional value for children and also ensures that the food itself is prepared as it is prepared under a highly hygienic environment.

“You know the food being prepared by these cooks is for children; so they need to let the cooks know how to prepare this food in an hygienic environment. If you are not serving them the standard we want then such a cook will be disciplined. It’s either they take him off the list and get another person to replace him.

“The testimony we are getting from states is that school enrollment in those classes primary one to three has increased. Head teachers, headmasters have been testifying that they have more enrolments than they used to have before.

“This programme helps children. Those who were not going to school because there is food for them to eat, they go to school. The population in classes has increased.

“They are not supposed to take the food home. It is meant for them in school. But you see children will always be children. But I think what they are doing too will encourage the ones at home to be in school.”

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