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Investing in child nutrition for maximum development

By Ijeoma UKAZU

Good nutrition is essential to children’s physical and cognitive development to enable them to achieve their full potential.

Studies have shown that undernutrition has a whole range of effects that impede not only children’s nutrition and development in the short term, but also their cognitive abilities and productivity in adulthood, with measurable economic impacts.

To address the large and severe problem of early childhood undernutrition, experts advised that policymakers could maximize the effectiveness of investments designed to achieve overall child development goals.

According to a report released last year by the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, an analysis of 91 countries, including Nigeria, showed that half of the children aged six to 23 months globally are not being fed the minimum recommended number of meals a day. Two-thirds do not consume the minimum number of food groups they need to thrive.

According to the 2018 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, NDHS, in Nigeria, among children aged six to 23 months, only 23 percent have the minimum necessary dietary diversity, and only 42 percent have minimum adequate meal frequency.

UNICEF said, as COVID-19 continues to disrupt essential services and drive more families into poverty, the report finds that the pandemic is affecting how families feed their children.

According to a study conducted in Nigeria last year, Nigerians were already largely unable to afford healthy diets due to pre-existing food security challenges, with an estimated 40.1 percent of Nigerians unable to cater for their food expenditure. It is likely that this will only be worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNICEF lamented that children under the age of two are not getting the food or nutrients they need to thrive and grow well, leading to irreversible developmental harm.

They warned that the rising poverty, inequality, conflict, climate-related disasters, and health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, are contributing to an ongoing nutrition crisis among the world’s youngest that has shown little sign of improvement in the last ten years.

Speaking about the outcome of the report, UNICEF Nigeria Deputy Representative, Rushnan Murtaza, said, “The findings of the report are clear: millions of young children are not being fed diets adequate for their growth and development.

Murtaza adds that “Poor nutritional intake in the first two years of life can harm children’s rapidly growing bodies and brains, impacting their futures. Now more than ever, with the ongoing COVID-19 disruptions, we need to reimagine a food system that improves the diets of young children, including in Nigeria.”

He said children carry the scars of poor diets and feeding practices for life, adding that an insufficient intake of nutrients found to support growth at an early age puts children at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections, and, potentially, death.

The UNICEF Nigeria Deputy Representative pointed that children under the age of two are most vulnerable to all forms of malnutrition – stunting, wasting (low weight for height), micronutrient deficiencies, overweight, and obesity – as a result of poor diets, due to their greater need for essential nutrients per kilogram of body weight than at any other time in life.

Globally, UNICEF estimates that more than half of children under the age of five with wasting -around 23 million children are younger than two years of age, while the prevalence of stunting increases rapidly between six months and two years, as children’s diets fail to keep pace with their growing nutritional needs.

In Nigeria, one out of every three children is stunted and one of every ten children is wasted. As a result, close to 17 million Nigerian children are undernourished (stunted and/or wasted), giving Nigeria the highest-burden of malnutrition in Africa and the second highest in the world.

With this report, Nigeria is off track to achieving SDG2: Zero Hunger by 2030, as UNICEF urged to change this trajectory, the time to act is now to reimagine not just food, but health and social protection systems.

According to the UNICEF Associate Director on Data and Analytics, Mark Hereward said, “We are still losing too many young lives from largely preventable causes, often because of weak and underfunded health systems which have faced enormous pressure over the pandemic.

“In addition, the burden of these deaths is not carried equally around the world. Children in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia continue to face the highest risk of death in the world, and to bear the brunt of this child mortality burden.

“If we are going to achieve the child mortality SDGs in all countries, we must redouble efforts to ensure access to effective and high-quality care along with the continued expansion of coverage of life-saving interventions.”

In its recent publication called, ‘Latest child mortality estimates reveal world remains off-track to meeting Sustainable Development Goals.’

The UN body’s publication was based on a report, which was released by the United Nations Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation, UN IGME, revealing that the world remains significantly off-track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs on ending the preventable deaths of newborns and children under five years.

According to the report, more than 50 countries will not meet the under-five mortality target by 2030, and more than 60 countries will miss the neonatal mortality target without immediate action.

Specifically, the report said that there is an urgent need to invest in strengthening data systems to track newborn and child health and mortality in low- and middle-income countries.

UNICEF urged African countries to invest in quality health services, nutrition, and other life-saving interventions for women and children to combat child mortality in line with the SDGs.

The Director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing, World Health Organization, WHO, Dr. Anshu Banerjee stressed that “Investing in children is one of the most important things a society can do to build a better future.”

Banerjee said, “Intensified efforts are needed to deliver quality health care services for all children and adolescents, which also means collecting the necessary data to ensure that their physical, developmental and emotional needs are being met throughout their life.”

In his words, the Practice Manager for the Health, Nutrition and Population Global Practice of the World Bank, Feng Zhao said, “Countries must invest in quality health services, nutrition, and other life-saving interventions for women and children to ensure the hard-won gains in combating child mortality are not lost and to meet the SDGs.”

Zhao said, “The World Bank continues to be committed to helping low- and middle-income countries improve health outcomes for women and children and accelerate reductions in child mortality, including through partnerships like the Global Financing Facility, GFF.”

To deliver nutritious, safe, and affordable diets to every child year-round, the report calls for governments, donors, civil society organizations, and development actors to work hand-in-hand to transform food, health, and social protection systems.

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