The coronavirus pandemic is threatening the target of ending acute malnutrition.
Health advocates at a virtually held nutrition conference on Friday agreed that the campaign towards ending Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) in Nigeria more than ever before needs proper, accurate and balanced reporting of critical issues hampering progress.
The conference was organised by the International Society for Media in Public Health (ISMPH) – an organisation galvanising critical reporting of health-related issues especially those affecting children.
There are staggering health indices suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening several health targets including ending the scourge of acute malnutrition.
For instance, PREMIUM TIMES reported how a lot of Nigerian women missed out on exclusive breastfeeding, especially due to misinformation about the nature of the disease and what needs to be done to avoid it.
During the lockdown, breastfeeding counselling programmes were suspended in hospitals, putting a strain on Nigeria’s target of using exclusive breastfeeding to tackle malnutrition in children under five.
It is hard to separate the truth from falsehood without proper medical counsel and hands-on media fact checks, as COVID-19 has brought with it a wave of rumours, mixed messages, and deliberate misinformation across Nigeria.
“This is why a stronger sense of advocacy journalism is necessary. Achieving development outcomes call for a commitment to advocacy and an activist mindset by the media professionals”, said Adebayor Fayoyin, a public health advocate.
“This calls for media professionals who will use their platforms and skills to promote health and nutrition outcomes,” Mr Fayoyin, a professor of mass communication at Caleb University in Lagos noted.
The conference came on the back of advocacy against budgetary cuts of funds for nutrition.
Nutrition experts have been calling on the federal government to return the about N800 million budgetary allocation for Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF), removed from the 2020 budget.
They attributed the continued grim statistics of malnutrition in Nigeria to the government’s lack of a specific budget for nutrition and strategic plan of action.
SAM or extremely low weight-for-height, is estimated to affect about 2.5 million children under age five in Nigeria every year, contributing to as many as 400,000 deaths annually.
The development of SAM in infants under six months of age commonly reflects sub-optimal feeding practices, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.
The latest cuts in the 2020 budget for RUTF builds on those of previous years mirrored in a 2018 report by the International Center for Investigative Reporting. Since 2017, the government has been slashing funds for this nutritional programme designed to save thousands of lives.
The World Bank had estimated that Nigeria would have to spend N301 billion annually to combat malnutrition effectively.
RUTF can effectively treat children with SAM at the community level with a 95 per cent cure rate, according to the UN children’s fund, UNICEF.
Role of Journalism
Brave, critical, and balanced reporting will generate conversations capable of putting the government under pressure to stop the budget cuts and release withheld funds, says Moji Makajuonla, the ISMPH executive director.
“Good journalism backed with research can help in countering several false information spreading especially during this COVID-19 era.”
In his presentation, the country director, Network for Health Equity and Development, Emanuel Sokpo, explained how increased awareness among media practitioners and civil societies can boost the knowledge and perception of malnutrition across the country.
The president, Association of Nigeria Health Journalists, Malam Hassan Zaggi, said the association is committed to supporting the SAM consortium to “achieve its objective of reducing child malnutrition to the barest minimum in the country”.
He noted that an ingenious investment model for nutrition that will be attractive to the private sector, which was put in place by the government, is yet to make any impact. He called for more reporting in that area.
“Media organisations must commit to strengthening health and development coverage for the life cycle of the Sustainable Development Goals, and the national health development agenda,” Mr Fayoyin, who spoke earlier, said.
After the conference, the following five recommendations were made:
1. There is a need for a mix of financing mechanisms for nutrition. Country ownership and use of domestic resources for nutrition is necessary for sustained action and improved nutrition outcomes. Governments at the national and subnational levels should prioritize nutrition in their budgets by ensuring adequate appropriation, timely releases, and efficient utilization of funds. budgetary allocations while exploring innovative options of supplementing financing for nutrition.
2. Government should explore innovative options for financing nutrition. Innovative financing can be used to improve what is already existing, such as the Basic Health Care Provision Fund as well as national and state health insurance schemes. Other options that may be explored include: nutrition impact bonds, sin taxes on commodities such as alcohol and tobacco, voluntary contributions, and solidarity e.g. private sector contribution as part of their corporate social responsibility, financial transaction tax e.g. diaspora funds, airport tickets
3. The private sector should be encouraged to supplement and reinforce public investments in nutrition. The private sector can invest in infrastructure, nutrition commodities, training of health workers, food fortification and supply chains.
4. There is a need for extensive legislative oversight to ensure adequate appropriation for nutrition, equitable, efficient and judicious use of funds, accountability, and transparency.
5. Government should ensure a robust governance structure for nutrition which should include coherent policies, oversight and accountability mechanisms at all levels, improved intra and multisectoral collaboration, and feedback (citizens voice).