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We must end malnutrition in northern Nigeria

The global medical aid group of French origin, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, recently raised the alarm on the high level of…

The global medical aid group of French origin, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, recently raised the alarm on the high level of malnutrition among children in the north-western region of Nigeria, which brought to the fore an issue of grave concern to us all.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “Malnutrition refers to deficiencies or excesses in nutrient intake, imbalance of essential nutrients or impaired nutrient utilisation. The double burden of malnutrition consists of both under-nutrition and overweight and obesity, as well as diet-related non-communicable diseases. Under-nutrition manifests in four broad forms: wasting (low weight-for-height), stunting (low height-for-age), underweight, and micronutrient deficiencies.”

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High rates of malnutrition, as noted by UNICEF, pose significant public health and development challenges for the country. “Stunting, in addition to an increased risk of death, is also linked to poor cognitive development, a lowered performance in education and low productivity in adulthood.” 

The MSF, working in collaboration with the Nigerian health authorities, said they had treated close to 100,000 children suffering from acute malnutrition and have admitted about 17,000 children requiring hospital care in 10 inpatient centres in Kano, Zamfara, Katsina, Sokoto and Kebbi states.

“In Zamfara State, one of the areas most affected by ongoing violence and banditry, we recorded a 64 per cent increase in the numbers of severely malnourished children treated in the outpatient nutritional departments supported by MSF from January to August 2022, when compared to January to August 2021,” said Froukje Pelsma, MSF’s head of mission in Nigeria.

“Our nutritional surveys have also underlined the severity of the crisis, including in areas that are less affected by violence and insecurity. In Mashi Local Government Area, in Katsina State, MSF found a 27.4 per cent rate of global acute malnutrition and a 7.1 per cent rate of severe acute malnutrition in June, even though the community has been relatively spared from violence and forced displacement. These rates indicate a critical emergency,” the MSF added.

Also, Katsina State Governor Aminu Bello Masari had, while playing host to the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator of the United Nations Country Team in Nigeria, Mr Mathias Schmel, identified the drivers of malnutrition as “insecurity, poverty and lack of skills”. The governor added, “The problem you see in Katsina State and I assure you the same thing in Jigawa, Zamfara, Sokoto, Kebbi, parts of Kaduna, and Niger states, are mainly cultural issues” where people keep large families with no apparent means of taking care of their needs.

“We want to teach our people how to provide the needed supplements. Katsina State has an approximately eight million population and it keeps on growing. So, the intervention we need in order to address poverty has to do with education to ensure we give the people knowledge and skills to acquire increased production,” he said.

The issue of malnutrition is one that has been on for a long time, especially in the northern part of the country. Sadly, not much is done or even heard about it, until the international communities issue statements or results of research carried out on the issue.  We, therefore, commend the MSF and the UN for their efforts. But this is not something that should be left to humanitarian organisations alone. State governors must formulate a response plan to the crisis and it should not focus on the situation in the North East alone, to the exclusion of the North West, where the situation is equally, if not more, critical.

Although there are malnourished children in every Nigerian state, the problem of malnutrition is more widespread in northern Nigeria. It is for this reason that Nigeria accounts for the highest burden in Africa and the second highest in the world. The issue has no doubt reached an alarming level and should no longer be treated with kid gloves. The underlying causes of malnutrition in Nigeria, which include poor infant and young child feeding practices, lack of access to effective healthcare, water and sanitation, poverty and insecurity, need to be reversed without delay.

The governors of the seven states of the North West should, in collaboration with the federal government, ensure security of lives and property in their region so that the people, who are predominantly farmers, can go back to their farmlands and be able to get the food to eat and even increase their earnings which, in turn, will reduce poverty.

They should also come up with ways through which this fast rising epidemic will be reduced to a minimal level if not totally eradicated. More partnership and support should be encouraged with groups and organisations, such as the ‘Future Assured’ campaign started by the First Lady Aisha Buhari in 2015, to end child malnutrition in Nigeria. The state governments should also seek the support of traditional rulers in the area of enlightenment of the citizens so that mothers and fathers can be educated about the need to breastfeed infants within the first hour of life, among other global best practices.

Individuals and corporate organisations should join the fight against total eradication of malnutrition. The Federal Ministry of Health should also add its voice in this fight.

All efforts must be made towards eradicating this menace in Nigeria.

 

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