Without adequate food, Nigeria will not be providing its citizens with the fundamental requirement for good public health.
The majority of Nigeria - according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) - is in stressed food security circumstances. Some areas are in crisis, and specific areas of the North-eastern portion of the country are in famine.
The importance of food security to public health cannot be overemphasised. There are many elements that make up the World Health Organisation's definition of Public Health or the "... . state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."
Most of the Nigerian health budget is spent to cure disease or prevent infection. This includes the national hospital and clinical care system which utilises the bulk of the national health care budget. And we can all rejoice with a new vaccine for Malaria now going into production.
While these services are clearly needed and necessary, the importance of early childhood nutrition is often overlooked. Such nutrition is necessary to provide the needed human capital potential to work and develop national resources. The first obligation of the government is to make sure that its people are fed. This translates into food security, or the ability of a nation to supply an adequate food supply to the population.
Of particular importance is good nutrition for the very young. The World Health Organisation (WHO) summarises the importance of nutrition to early childhood development this way.
"A child's first 2 or 3 years of life are the most crucial for normal physical and mental development. Nevertheless, current feeding practices in some countries may be doing more harm than good to the development of young children. Children under 3 years of age are vulnerable to poor nutrition; the growth rate during this period is greater than at any other time, and there thus exists an increased risk of growth retardation. Also, the immunological system is not fully mature at this age, resulting in a risk of frequent and severe infections. Both cognitive and emotional potentials start to develop early, and so the foundations of intellectual, social and emotional competencies are also established during this period. In summary, poor nutrition during the early years leads to profound defects including delayed motor and cognitive development, behavioural problems, deficient social skills, a reduced attention span, learning deficiencies and lower educational achievement. " (Fleischer-Michaelsen et al. Feeding and Nutrition of Infants and Young Children, WHO 2003)
Clearly, much is at stake: young children must have good nutrition if they are to become productive adults. The scientific evidence has long been clear.
Resolving the problem of early childhood nutrition must be the first priority of any nation. Where does Nigeria stand on food security and what can be done to improve the situation?
The Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET) of USAID has monitored food production and food security in Nigeria for over two decades. According to their data, the present situation is dire.
Their last summary of the situation, published in September 2021, shows (figure one) that while survey data is needed to get exact estimates of stunted children in these areas, it is certain that in famine areas, severe malnutrition could be as high as 15 per cent of the population. Larger cohorts are suffering from mild and moderate malnourishment. The potential impact of these levels of malnutrition on developing a healthy population is enormous in both human and fiscal costs. Children, after all, are the future of Nigeria.
What can be done?
First, Nigeria and the international community should provide immediate food assistance to those areas in famine and severely stressed zones. This constitutes roughly two-thirds of the entire country.
Second, a national nutritional surveillance system should be reinforced and used in conjunction with international data sources to target at-risk areas and provide timely assistance before famine conditions exist.
Finally, a development strategy that addresses food production in the areas in chronic deficit should be a core part of public health interventions. Without adequate food, Nigeria will not be providing its citizens with the fundamental requirement for good public health. And without adequate public health, all development goals are jeopardized.
About the Author: An Emeritus Professor from Tulane University, Dr. Bertrand, the Wisner-Chair holder, was the Vice President of Institutional Planning, Research and Innovation, Chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Founding Chair of the Department of International Health and Executive Director of the Payson Center. Read his full bio here.
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