ABUJA, NIGERIA - The winners in Nigeria’s general election Saturday will face a disturbing challenge: How to help millions of children in the country suffering from malnutrition.
While hunger as a whole is gradually declining in Nigeria, the rate of acute malnutrition and stunted growth has seen little or no improvement.
Forty-year-old Samaila Shangari and his wife’s 2-year-old triplets are among the millions of Nigerian children suffering from malnutrition.
Shangari says they could not afford to feed them properly as babies and can’t afford it now.
“We are begging the government to help us because we don’t have money to even buy food. We are begging the government,” he said.
WATCH: Nigeria's Starvation Rate Shows Little Improvement
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, child hunger in Nigeria is declining by about 3 percent per year. But the rate of severe acute malnutrition, the technical term for starvation, remains unchanged.
The U.N. children’s agency says 2½ million Nigerian children are starving and only about 20 percent of them get help.
Nigeria’s Health Ministry distributes food and treatment, but Clementina Okoro, a nutrition expert with the ministry admits it’s not enough.
“It’s really a serious issue of public health concern,” she said. “Malnutrition has been on the rise. Yes, over 900,000 children die annually.”
Widespread poverty, insecurity in the north, and poor health care are major triggers for child malnutrition in Nigeria.
Exclusive breastfeeding gives children a better start in life, but not enough mothers practice it, says pediatrician Adeyemi Adeniran.
“From the point of birth, the baby is being introduced to breastfeeding and that is the cheapest and the best,” he said. “But the advocacy and the awareness about this has been a bit poor. We’re also bringing that on board now to encourage mothers to make sure they breastfeed exclusively for six months.”
But better health care only goes so far in alleviating widespread poverty.
Nigerians are going to the polls Saturday, and whoever emerges as president faces the challenge of improving the economy, so more Nigerian children can live long and healthy lives.