Editor’s note: A healthy future starts with a healthy baby, and a healthy baby starts with a healthy mother. In this thought leadership piece, Olubunmi Oyebanji shares how we can create a brighter future for families by prioritising maternal nutrition.
Imagine a Nigeria where every child is born healthy, thriving, and set on a path to realise their full potential. A country where mothers, equipped with love as well as knowledge, can provide their children with a healthy future. The reality is far from this vision.
Maternal health and nutrition are the cornerstones upon which future generations build their lives. In Nigeria, this foundation is unsteady, with concerning statistics on maternal and infant health. According to the 2018 Nigeria Demographic Health Survey, 37% of Nigerian children under five (5) are stunted (short for their age), 7% are wasted (thin for their height), and 22% are underweight (thin for their age).
We are currently at the halfway point to attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets of reducing neonatal and under-five mortality to 12 per 1000 live births and under-five mortality to at least as low as 25 per 1000 live births. However, Nigeria remains far from achieving these goals, with neonatal mortality at 69 per 1,000 live births and under-five mortality at 128 per 1,000 live births.
Every year, roughly 262,000 babies in Nigeria die at birth, the world’s second-highest national total. This is not just a statistic but a loud plea for change. Many of these deaths are from preventable causes, and poor maternal nutrition is a contributory factor. Mothers who are malnourished are more likely to give birth to underweight babies, heightening the child’s susceptibility to infections, delayed development, and death. Proper nutrition during the first 1000 days can prevent stunting and wasting, ensure appropriate cognitive development, and lessen the risk of chronic diseases later in life.
Why maternal nutrition is of utmost importance
A woman’s nutritional status directly influences her child’s health. If she lacks crucial nutrients during pregnancy, the developing foetus will also be deficient. This jeopardises the child’s brain development, physical growth, and immune function. Children born to malnourished mothers are more prone to suffer cognitive delays, possess a lower IQ and face educational hurdles. Furthermore, the ripple effects of poor maternal health are not confined to immediate health outcomes. They echo through the community and the nation, resulting in diminished economic productivity and increased healthcare costs.
The Road Ahead: Mapping a New Direction for Nigeria
Over 50% of pregnant Nigerian women are anaemic, a condition associated with premature births and postpartum haemorrhage, leading to maternal deaths. But there might be some hope in this direction- Bosede Afolabi, a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, is working on introducing her innovation to treat severe anaemia cases quickly and effectively. A one-off intravenous infusion of iron that has the ability to replenish a woman’s iron reserves during or after pregnancy is part of the innovations highlighted in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) 2023 Goalkeepers report that could save the lives of two million women and children. Prof. Afolabi is billed to speak on this innovation at the 2023 Goalkeepers event scheduled to be held during the 78th United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2023 and this would be a great opportunity to learn how this solution can be utilised to save women’s lives in Nigeria.
Moving further to try to understand the multiple complexities behind poor maternal nutrition outcomes, one might ask, “Why is this occurring in Nigeria?”
The answers seem simple enough.
- There is a lack of awareness of minimum nutritional standards and requirements for women during pregnancy, and while breastfeeding. Many women are poorly informed about the importance of maternal nutrition and the critical nutrients needed to sustain her and her child.
- The increasing economic hardship. For many families, affording nutritious food that is adequate for mother and child is a significant challenge.
- Age-old socio-cultural beliefs and local dietary practices, which prevent women from consuming healthy food and sometimes obstruct the adoption of improved nutritional practices.
But where do we go from here?
- Raising Public Awareness: From traditional community leaders to media to policymakers, every stakeholder has a role in underlining the importance of maternal nutrition. Tailored messaging, crafted with Nigeria’s sociocultural backdrop in mind can make a significant difference. Engaging community leaders in disseminating nutritional knowledge at the community level will ensure that vital awareness is elevated where it is most needed.
- Policy Advocacy: Maternal nutrition should be central in our national development strategies. This encompasses integrating maternal nutrition into annual budgets, public health campaigns and maternal health strategies, policies, and plans.
- Public-Private Collaborations: Joint efforts between the public and private sectors can accelerate progress. From fortifying staple foods with essential micronutrients to initiating community-based nutrition education schemes and supply chain networks, there is vast potential for united action.
- Community-Based Initiatives: Utilising community health workers to deliver interventions, such as micronutrient supplementation, can create a huge impact. These grassroots endeavours can ensure even the most hard-to-reach villages are reached. Championing community-based nutrition initiatives will guarantee that no woman, child, family, or community is overlooked.
- Leveraging Data and Technology: To devise effective strategies, we require solid data. Nigeria should invest in monitoring and evaluation systems to pinpoint nutritional shortcomings and monitor advancements. Mobile apps can be built to offer dietary guidance tailored to Nigerian mothers. Digital tools can be leveraged to bridge the rural-urban health gap.
A Nigeria where every woman understands and has access to nutritious food, where every child is healthy and is able to achieve their potential what we must strive for. It is an ambitious vision, indeed, but feasible.
Prioritising maternal nutrition is not merely a health concern; it is an economic concern. By enhancing the health of mothers and children, Nigeria can pave a way to a brighter, more prosperous tomorrow.
The resources, knowledge and expertise are available, and Prof. Afolabi’s innovation is proof that there is hope for the country. With collaboration, strategic commitments and a focus on practical solutions, Nigeria can shift the narrative and present its mothers and children with better opportunities, for the future of Nigeria rests on the well-being of every Nigerian mother and her child.