The media is inundated with reports about the coronavirus pandemic, currently ravaging so many parts of the globe. With over 36 million cases and more than a million deaths, it deserves all the attention that it is getting. Falling through the cracks and going under-reported however, are other salient illnesses, particularly a silent partner that contributes to the spread of the pandemic – malnutrition.
Malnutrition occurs when the body doesn’t get enough nutrients. The causes include a poor diet, digestive conditions or maybe illness.
Malnutrition contributes to the quickening of the spread of the pandemic, as weakened, malnourished individuals are vulnerable to the COVID-19 infection.
A recent webinar, the Protein Challenge Webinar Series 4 facilitated by health and nutrition experts, themed: “Protein deficiency in a pandemic“, highlighted different solutions to the scourge of malnutrition in Nigeria and its ‘partnership’ with the coronavirus.
Dr Monica Omo-Irefo, medical expert and principal health officer, noted that there is indeed an alliance between the two conditions. She explained that incidences of malnutrition in the country are on the rise, making vulnerable groups, especially children and young expectant and breastfeeding mothers, more susceptible to diseases and other infections.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) in attempting to indicate the contagiousness and pervasiveness of the coronavirus declared it a pandemic. This pandemic, she noted, can easily overcome the immune system of the elderly and children, especially among those that lack basic nutrition.
The truth is that the body needs food and nutrients for survival. The quality of the diet must be improved to safeguard health and wellbeing.
Dr Beatrice Oganah-Ikujenyo (PhD), a nutritionist, advised that, to combat this menace of malnutrition in Nigeria and safeguard health, people should deliberately and actively include food crops rich in protein, vitamins and minerals in the diet. These foods also assist the body in combating infections.
On the availability of local food sources rich in nutrients, she revealed that there are several. She listed soybeans, bambara nuts, groundnuts, honey beans, locust beans, cabbages, garden eggs, spring onions, leafy greens, as good examples of locally available food crops that are rich in micro and macronutrients, which are beneficial to the body.
The nutritionist posited that not only are the foods on the list of tremendous benefit to the body, but they can help in providing immunity to vulnerable members of the society.
Pregnant mothers, children and infants are susceptible to infections and diseases, including malnutrition.
Malnutrition is one of the primary causes of immunodeficiency worldwide, particularly for infants. There is also a correlation between malnutrition and infant mortality, with poor nutrition leaving children underweight, weakened, and susceptible to infections like the coronavirus pandemic.
The sad reality is that not only does malnutrition put a child at risk to infections but infections also contribute to the symptoms of malnutrition, resulting in a vicious cycle. Inadequate dietary intake, both in quantity and quality, can lead to weight loss, lowered immunity, disease invasion, and impaired growth and development in children.
On the quest to significantly reduce infant mortality amidst the pandemic, Dr. Adepeju Adeniran, an experienced clinician and public health expert, called for proper meal planning and breastfeeding policies.
She argued that infant mortality can be reduced if nutritional policies are targeted at improving the maternal literacy levels across all rural and urban communities, along with improving access to nutrient-rich foods.
Dr. Adeniran noted that access to health information and services is crucial to mitigating the adverse effects of malnutrition in the nation.
Another approach that must be employed to reduce the levels of malnutrition in society, is to create more awareness of the condition. The mass and social media platforms need to be be utilized to their fullest, to reach a larger audience and educate on proper dietary habits.
The task of ridding the nation of malnutrition is a national assignment. It requires a thoroughly coordinated, multi-disciplinary approach among experts in agriculture, nutrition and public health. Malnutrition is both a health and nutrition challenge.
With everyone concerned working together, malnutrition in Nigeria can be eradicated, or at least severely reduced.
Reginald Onabu, Researcher and Public Relations Officer, Writes from Lagos.