by Olatunji Saliu
ABUJA, Aug. 1 (Xinhua) -- Nigeria has launched a nationwide campaign to scale up infant nutrition through breastfeeding. Apart from considering its economic benefit, the vision of the West African country is to massively advocate exclusive breastfeeding to measure up to the global target average rate of at least 50 percent by 2025.
The nationwide campaign, tagged "Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative," was launched Tuesday as the 2017 World Breastfeeding Week kicked off throughout the globe with "Sustaining Breastfeeding Together" as its theme.
The health benefits of breastfeeding are numerous but knowledge about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding is quite low in the most populous African country.
According to the Nigerian ministry of health, only about 25 percent of mothers in parts of Nigeria know that newborns must be fed only breast milk in the first six months of life.
Grace Mojekwu, head of the infant and young child feeding/nutrition desk of the health ministry, told Xinhua breast milk was the ideal food for every newborn.
Apart from reducing incidents of death in newborns, she said breastfeeding is also believed to help in the cognitive development of children, as they prove to do better in school, and longer breastfeeding durations are associated with higher scores on intelligence tests.
"We will intensify campaign on exclusive breastfeeding and young child feeding practices in health facilities, communities, workplaces as well as train health care professionals," the official said.
"The Nigerian government has a policy that says nursing mothers should breast feed exclusively for six months and thereafter, complementary feeding can be introduced while breastfeeding is sustained for two years," Mojekwu noted.
The level of exclusive breastfeeding in Nigeria is only 17 percent.
According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), each year, at least 5.4 million children in Nigeria miss out on the benefits of breastfeeding, contributing to the country's problem of chronic child malnutrition.
Also, 11 million children under age five are currently malnourished in Nigeria.
UNICEF said the low rate of exclusive breastfeeding leads to more than 100,000 child deaths and translates into almost 12 billion US dollars in future economic losses for the country.
Breast milk contains all the nutrients and fluids a baby needs for the first six months of life.
Colostrum is a clear, thick and sticky liquid produced by a mother's mammary glands after a child's birth. Packed with natural antibodies and nutrients, it prevents the child from infections, including gastrointestinal discomforts.
Colostrum is produced in small quantity for the first four days and then replaced with a lighter and thinner liquid. It gives the baby a chance to fight against bacteria, parasites, and disease causing pathogens.
There is an enormous misconception that colostrum is dirty, but experts said it is not.
At the launch of the new nationwide campaign by Nigeria, experts agreed breast milk is the critical first vaccine for babies, as it gives the best protection they can have against an array of illnesses and diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia, to mention a few.
About 74 percent of children who are not exclusively breastfed are from families in the lowest income group in Nigeria, according to UNICEF.
The government has outlined a number of action plans which include demonstrating a political will to support breastfeeding, regulating the breast milk substitute industry, increasing public sector investment in breastfeeding interventions, enacting policy interventions and scaling up, monitoring breastfeeding and trends in breastfeeding practices, among others, to reinforce a breastfeeding culture in the country.
Through the newly launched campaign, the Nigerian government said it will also disseminate accurate information on the value of breastfeeding as a powerful intervention for health and economic development, benefiting both children and women.
In line with the global target, the country's National Strategic Plan of Action on Nutrition aims to increase breastfeeding rate to at least 50 percent by 2018, the government added.
Going by the World Bank's new investment framework for nutrition, every dollar invested in promoting breastfeeding can generate a return of 35 U.S. dollars in economic benefits.