14 June 2023 - Nigeria

Transforming Child Nutrition in Nigeria: The Role of Gut Microbiome in Building Stronger, Healthier Communities

Doctor Aluh Francis helping a mother breastfeed in a stabilisation centre in Nigeria

Doctor Aluh Francis helping a mother breastfeed in a stabilisation centre in Nigeria. Saman Saidi / Save the Children

In a small Nigerian village, a little boy named Ahmed found it challenging to keep up with his friends as they played outside. Despite his mother Halima's best efforts, Ahmed's small and weak frame resulted from their family's inability to afford nutrient-rich foods. Sadly, this situation is not unique to Ahmed and his family. With a national prevalence rate of 32%, an estimated 2 million Nigerian children under five currently suffer from severe acute malnutrition, making it the country with the second-highest number of stunted children globally.

Luckily, a group of NGOs arrived in the village, determined to address the issue of malnutrition. They talked to the families about the importance of a balanced diet, clean water, and proper sanitation facilities. However, they also introduced a new concept Halima had never heard of, the gut microbiome. These tiny microorganisms living in the gut play a crucial role in digestion and metabolism, produces essential vitamins and metabolites, regulate inflammation, and contribute to developing and maintaining the gut immune system during infancy and adulthood.

Halima was intrigued and asked the NGOs how she could improve her son's gut microbiome. The NGOs explained that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, starting within an hour of birth, and a nutritious diet rich in micronutrients, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains could help support a healthy gut microbiome. They also helped the village set up a community garden and organised workshops on exclusive breastfeeding, proper hygiene, and sanitation. They even built new water wells and latrines to promote clean water and sanitation.

Over time, Halima noticed a positive change in her son's health. Ahmed grew taller, more robust, and had more energy to play with his friends. The interventions by the NGOs and the knowledge they shared about the gut microbiome helped build a stronger and healthier community in Nigeria.

Addressing malnutrition in Nigeria requires a comprehensive approach that accounts for various factors. While access to nutrient-rich foods and clean water is essential, the gut microbiome should not be overlooked. Proper hygiene and sanitation can help prevent dysbiosis, an imbalance of harmful bacteria in the gut microbiome that can contribute to malnutrition.

When devising strategies to enhance child nutrition in Nigeria, NGOs should incorporate the gut microbiome as an essential aspect of their approach. Encouraging exclusive breastfeeding and promoting a nutritious diet rich in micronutrients, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains could help support a healthy gut microbiome. Additionally, ensuring access to clean water and sanitation facilities can be instrumental in addressing poor hygiene practices that disrupt the gut microbiome.

Improving the gut microbiome is crucial for child nutrition and health in Nigeria, and NGOs can help by investing in interventions that address this aspect of child nutrition. Neglecting the gut microbiome can lead to malnutrition, stunted growth, and cognitive development issues, impacting long-term productivity and earning potential. Investing in a healthier population through gut microbiome interventions can have economic benefits and contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty in Nigeria. This can help create a brighter future for Nigerian children.

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NOTES

Save the Children International executed the "Delivering lifesaving nutrition and protection services to conflict-affected households in Borno State" project in Nigeria's Borno State from April 2018 to March 2020. This initiative aimed to address the urgent humanitarian needs caused by the ongoing conflict in the North Eastern region, where millions of people required immediate assistance. The prolonged eight-year crisis exacerbated the plight of displaced individuals, especially women and girls, who faced severe malnutrition, food insecurity, and protection challenges.

To tackle these issues, the project employed various interventions, including Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) counselling for male and female caregivers, hygiene promotion, and the establishment of kitchen gardens. These measures aimed to reduce the beneficiaries' vulnerability and improve their gut microbiome health. The IYCF counselling provided education on the significance of exclusive breastfeeding, complementary feeding, and proper nutrition for infants and young children. The hygiene promotion component also emphasised the importance of adopting sanitation practices to prevent the spreading of diseases that could adversely affect gut health.

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