That Nigeria is undergoing one of the worst economic recessions in its history is no longer news. With prices of basic necessities hitting the roof, coupled with mass retrenchment of breadwinners, the stage may be set for hunger among the most vulnerable members of the society — the children.
Researchers have concluded that during recession, children born to poor households tend to lose weight.
A researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and lead author of the study, Vanessa Oddo, says, “We often think about how recessions directly affect adults (e.g. their jobs and retirement benefits), but these economic downturns have trickle down effects that impact children’s health.
“This study suggests that there are negative and potentially long-lasting health effects of an economic shock on children.”
The researchers note that unemployment not only results in decreased income, it could also render fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods unaffordable to most families.
“This would likely lead to increased consumption of cheaper, highly processed convenience foods,” Oddo says.
Physicians contend that factors associated with poverty, such as loss of income as a result of sacking as is being witnessed in Nigeria in recent times, have serious impacts on child health now and also in the future.
An expert in poverty and childhood obesity, Dr. Laura Gottlieb of the University of California, San Francisco, warns that it is increasingly evident that factors associated with poverty, including unemployment, housing instability, and food security, are related to child health.
Oddo says the health consequences of economic hardship can be very serious for children, with long-lasting damage to the child’s wellbeing.
According to researchers at the National Cancer Institute and the University of Calgary, children who go hungry at least once in their lives are 2½ times more likely to have poor overall health 10 to 15 years later, compared with those who never had to go without food. “Our research shows that hunger and food insecurity are really damaging in terms of children’s life chances,” says lead author Sharon Kirkpatrick.
The study supports earlier findings that multiple episodes of hunger are more likely to cause ill health than an isolated experience of starvation.
Indeed, Kirkpatrick’s team warns that children who experience two or more periods of hunger are more than four times as likely to report poor health than those who never went hungry.
Nutritionists contend that Good nutrition has a direct link to a child’s proper physical growth and development.
Indeed, Save the Children, an international non-governmental organisation that promotes children’s rights, warns that children who experience chronic, unsatisfied hunger are at risk of not getting the appropriate intake of necessary vitamins and minerals that will ensure that they achieve developmental milestones as at when due.
General Practitioner, Dr. Kunle Abiodun, says when a child experiences too much deprivation, s/he child might be shorter than average height and could be significantly underweight.
“Some kids succumb to common childhood diseases simply because hunger lowers the immunity that is necessary for warding off illnesses. When children suffer from hunger, they risk having poorer overall physical health,” Abiodun warns.
Researchers also counsel that a youngster’s cognitive development might be affected by hunger.
“Children experiencing chronic hunger could develop learning disabilities or other cognitive impairments.
“Many kids will have trouble focusing in an academic setting due to a lack of energy and motivation; and a hungry child often has ongoing health issues, so s/he may have frequent school absences that also make it difficult to learn. A hungry child might fall behind in grade levels,” Oddo says.
In another survey commissioned by Save the Children, researchers submit thatchildren who are malnourished at the start of life are severely disadvantaged in their ability to learn. “Compared with non-stunted children, stunted children score seven per cent lower on Maths tests and are 19 per cent less likely to be able to read a simple sentence at age eight.
“Such children are 12 per cent less likely to be able to write a simple sentence and are 13 per cent less likely to be in the appropriate grade for their age at school,” the report states.
The researchers add that the impact of malnutrition is not just on academic achievement.
“Malnutrition is associated with children having lower self-esteem, self-confidence and career aspirations.
“Malnourished children not only face direct damage to their bodies and minds, but are less confident to learn and aspire to change the situation they were born into,” the report says.
In worse case scenario, experts warn, malnutrition among children can result in death.
According to a report published in the peer-reviewed journal, Lancet, malnutrition is responsible for nearly half (45 per cent) of all deaths in children under the age of five.
The bottom line: Even when there is little to eat, try and balance the food groups to make for good nutrition.