Amid COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF intensifies efforts to fight child malnutrition in Nigeria

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By Geoffrey Njoku

With the emergence of COVID-19, UNICEF is taking a new look at its fight against child malnutrition in Nigeria.

Nigeria has the second-highest number of children affected by malnutrition globally, with more than 2.5 million suffering from severe acute malnutrition and only two of every 10 affected children able to access treatment. Nigeria also has the second-highest burden of stunted children in the world, with a national prevalence rate of 32 per cent of children under five.

With Nigeria’s heavy reliance on oil as an economic driver, the recent decline in oil prices due to COVID-19 has had a devastating impact. Adding to the pain, many Nigerians are now on lockdown, unable to earn the daily wage that allows them to feed themselves and their families.

“These measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are happening at the beginning of the rainy season. If they last longer, they will affect the planting season,” said Simeon Nanama, UNICEF’s Chief of Nutrition. “This will impact food security in the medium- and long-term, and ultimately negatively affect child nutrition.”

According to Nanama, the biggest problem with the lockdown and other COVID-19 prevention measures is the disruption to the food system.

“We are likely to see an increase in malnutrition. We will also see a spread in the geographic distribution of malnutrition, because the lockdown is more severe in some states than in others,” he said. “Also, cities where lockdowns appear to be more enforced may become the new centers of child malnutrition, which has not traditionally been the pattern of malnutrition in Nigeria.”

Adapting to COVID-19

UNICEF is taking a new look at its nutrition programme, to ensure that it continues to deliver critical services while still observing COVID-19 prevention measures, such as physical distancing and handwashing. It has also encouraged the government to establish a task force on nutrition to ensure the voices of nutrition experts are heard at senior levels where decisions on COVID-19 prevention and support measures are being taken.

Nanama said UNICEF would like to see the government ensure that “access to health centers is preserved and prioritized, so that children with common illnesses can receive care, the flow of food and other nutrition services is not impeded, the food supply system is not completely broken, and nutrition is factored into any support for the population, including food distribution for those in need during this challenging period.”

Children most affected

With schools still closed due to COVID-19 pandemic, children need to be reached with food – especially those children who rely on school feeding programmes as their only daily nutrition.

UNICEF is collaborating with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) so that COVID-19 infected mothers who have children under the age of two are able to breastfeed their babies in line with guidelines on breastfeeding and COVID-19. And in collaboration with the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), UNICEF is monitoring and stopping the free distribution of breast milk substitutes that could counter and erode gains made in promoting exclusive breastfeeding, said Nanama.

The organization is also providing training to mothers on physical distancing restrictions and has supplied them with middle and upper arm circumference (MUAC) tapes so they can screen their children for malnutrition themselves – and if necessary, bring them to health facilities for treatment.

“We have changed the admission procedures in UNICEF-supported treatment centers so that the treatment of malnourished children occurs daily, rather than one day per week. This limits crowds and allows for better physical distancing,” said Nanama.

“We have received a lot of guidance from our regional office and headquarters that helped us to adapt our programme to the COVID-19 context,” said Nanama. “Those guidelines also have been shared with the Nigerian Government, to ensure they can use and implement them – which, after all, will have the biggest impact.”

UNICEF’s child malnutrition project is partly funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the European Commission Humanitarian Operations (ECHO).

Geoffrey Njoku, Communications Specialist, UNICEF Nigeria

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