Malnourished Children and the future of Kaduna State

Hunger and malnutrition have devastating consequences for children and have been linked to low birth weight and birth defects, obesity, mental and physical health problems, and poorer educational outcomes”. Marian Wright Edelman

(Updated) The  problem of acute malnutrition amongst children of Kaduna State,which the Federal Ministry of Health puts at 263,495  for children below the age of five years with Severe Acute Malnutrition(SAM), and a further 248,394 for children with Moderate Acute Malnutrition (MAM). With a prevalence rate of 8.1%. The statistics is an overwhelming evidence that Kaduna State is facing a huge crisis, which long after many of us would have passed on,those behind would still be grappling with,due to the irreversible effects of malnutrition as aptly captured by Marian Wright Edelman.

It is a monumental crisis that is conclusively  a factor in the poor performance of Kaduna State students – the Center of Learning in national examinations – most especially the West Africa Examination Council(WAEC), and the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board(JAMB). The other factor – being that the teachers were obviously incapable of impacting any knowledge to these poor children.Thankfully the competency test that was recently administered on the “so called” teachers of Kaduna State Primary Schools revealed the sad truth. The twin combination of acutely malnourished  and poorly taught children is more than a disaster for dear old Kaduna State,which already suffers from other issues like drugs, and an army of alimajiris.

Some cynics have questioned the rationale behind the setting up of the Kaduna State Emergency Nutrition Action Programme(KADENAP) because malnutrition doesn’t seem to be a big problem,like H.I.V AIDS,which in fact is one of the greatest fraud of the 21st century. Malaria has killed and continues to kill more people than H.I.V AIDS,yet it has never attracted or commanded global attention like AIDS did. Nor has malnutrition which obviously has more devastating effect ,attracted World attention like H. I. V AIDS. To the cynics, even if malnutrition is a problem, it isn’t such big a problem that should attract  the concerted efforts it is attracting.

Nasir El – Rufai,the Kaduna State Governor is short of being accused of exaggerating or making a molehill out of a none issue, as against tackling issues which in their opinion are far much more important. To those in doubt, malnutrition is real and very devastating in its effects. Never mind that like  many other problems, most of us under estimate it,or are tragically unaware  of how serious it is or the implications to society. Another good example being the environmental problems that plastic litter has created – many people are unaware of the health danger it poses to them and indeed to all when they throw empty coke plastic bottles  into a river or into the drains.

We must pay a little more attention to what is going on around us,use our head, open our eyes,listen to things that happen around us and use the  glorious senses the good Lord has blessed us with. Maybe then we will see that acute malnutrition in children causes not just direct structural damage to the brain,but it impairs infant motor development and exploratory behavior. And that Children who are seriously undernourished before age two and gain weight quickly later in childhood and in adolescence are at high risk of chronic diseases related to malnutrition. That even after recovering from severe malnutrition,the children often remain stunted for the rest of their lives.That undernourished girls tend to grow into short adults and are more likely to have small children,rather than producing basket ballers. While the Chinese are making great efforts to produce giants,we are striving through sheer negligence to reverse a natural advantage.

The good news is that the Kaduna state government is confronting these  twin issues; of teachers that clearly lack the competency to impact knowledge and the Nutrition crisis that is threatening to turn the state into a  ” State of Dwarfs”,twin issues that definitely equate to crime against our children, with the deserved policy thrusts they deserve. On its part government has raised the necessary alarm and is taking decisive actions. A welcome development,considering that it is not of Electoral value like the construction of roads. But the government can’t drive the process alone,because it is not just a function of money,it is about what our children eat, and what they are taught at school.Critical stakeholders- parents,and religious organizations must key in and play their role.

According to a UNICEF Report, six children out of every 10,that are less than five years are stunted due to acute malnutrition and are 10 times more likely to die.This is the stark reality that Kaduna State is confronted with and that it has  as a matter of obligation and enlightened self interest taken steps to address. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that malnutrition accounts for 54 percent of child mortality worldwide,of about 1 million children.Another estimate by WHO shows that childhood underweight is the cause of about 35% of all deaths of children under the age of five years worldwide. These figures are nightmares.

The big question is how did Kaduna State get to where it is? Because Kaduna State has no business being in this notorious club. Kaduna State, a one time regional capital of the Northern Region,is number one in the production of maize, soya, tomatoes and ginger etc in the country,so its economy is much better than that of many other states. In terms of literacy level it can’t be compared to backwater states like Zamfara or Yobe. It also has better infrastructure etc. But this is the company that it has found itself,due to some practices- inadequate sanitation – which makes the children susceptible to infectious diseases like diarrhea, unsafe water intake, even when government has provided it, due to illegal connections, inadequate food intake, and lack of dietary diversity.Other factors are inadequate child and maternal care. And maternal factors,like young mothers refusing to practice exclusive breastfeeding,due to fears their breasts will sag. But very fundamental is also the nutrition level of these women during pregnancy. If a pregnant mother is iodine deficient during pregnancy,she would definitely deliver a brain damaged child or a child that suffers from some other extreme conditions. The  tragedy is that the child has already been denied the capacity of achieving his/her full potential. But even the simplest of precautions like the consumption of iodized salt that will help mitigate the problem is a problem.

Poverty has been mentioned as a factor,but the fact remains that you don’t have to be rich to eat a balanced meal. Our local foods are highly nutritious,as they contain all the nutrients that the children need, but they have been abandoned for chips and egg, instant noodles , which are not in any way heathy meals. The tragedy is that we have ended up with malnourished children,who at very young age have started to come down with diseases of lifestyle- heart and kidney. It’s a shame that the government has to train people who will in turn teach mothers the right formula and recipe – which from studies seems to be the main problem. For instance,to remedy the situation the Kaduna State Emergency Nutrition Action Plan (KADENAP), has employed trainers to manage the  various community malnutrition centres that have been established in five of the the 23 local government areas of the state. With time the entire state would be covered. Already over 12,000 children have been  treated by the Kaduna State Government in collaboration with UNICEF.

Moving forward,there are hard pills that must  be swallowed if this problem is to be resolved. Early marriage,unplanned families,polygamy etc. When the Emir of Kano Dr. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi argued that it doesn’t make sense to have four wives and children that can’t be adequately catered for,many Muslims took up arms against him. But Sanusi is very right in his conclusions about the causes of some of theses problems. Certainly these conversations  must be placed on the front burner as part of a wholistic solution to the problem, while remedial solutions are being implemented.

The other northern states should  take a cue from the Kaduna State which has adopted a multi-sectoral approach in tackling the malnutrition scourge. The ministries of health,agriculture,water resources women affairs,rural and community development,finance,budget and planning and other key stakeholders are all involved in tackling the issue because of its peculiar and all encompassing nature.

The Kaduna State intervention has been structured into three phase- the emergency part which is aimed at salvaging children that are already acutely malnourished and under the age of five. The second phase, is targeted at children above the age of five, their mothers and pregnant women. While the third phase aims to put in place structures that will ensure that children in the state don’t slip back to the first and second phases, a well articulated strategy to address the problem in the long term.

Hajiya Ummi el-rufai, Chairman of the Intervention Agency and wife of Governor El Rufai who is driving the programme believes that the problem is compounded more by ignorance,cultural practice,poor preparation of food,than lack of food. Key for her is sensitization.And she must be commended for her initiative and commitment. Last month the Federal Ministry of Budget and Planning hosted traditional rulers from the northern states, and the religious bodies to a sensitization workshop,unfortunately because the insurgency has made malnutrition look like a northern problem.

Funding might be a problem considering numerous other challenges and the dwindling resources available to government. The situation has further been compounded by the global economic downturn,which has led many foreign governments to cut foreign aids- an era that seems gone for good. Though the Kaduna State Governor, Malam Nasir el-Rufai, would want to throw all the money he can lay his hand on to tackle the problem, the reality is that he doesn’t have that money.But what he has in abundance is the political will and commitment to kick out malnutrition.

Ummi El- Rufai, shares the same commitment like her husband  to eradicate malnutrition from Kaduna State,but she needs support. Her urgent message,is awareness and action. Kaduna State people and kind hearted Nigerians should embrace her to save the children of Kaduna State. It will cost just N10,000 to nurse a child back to health. I have adopted one.