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Sad fate of breastfeeding mothers, others during COVID-19 lockdown in Rivers

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Favour Madu with her baby.

Thirty-six-year-old Favour Madu, a breastfeeding mother, resides at Akukwa Street in Mile One Diobu, Port Harcourt, Rivers State. Before the COVID-19 lockdown, her husband, an artisan at Ikoku Spare Market, usually provided the family’s needs with proceeds from his daily struggle. But with the restriction of movement, and everyone staying at home, the daily income has ceased. So, Favour, whose baby is just about four months old, is unable to buy adequate foodstuff that could sustain her family through the pandemic period.

Narrating her experience to The Guardian, she said she had fainted five times since the lockdown began, due to hunger. She said she has no additional food to support in feeding her baby. Hence, after breastfeeding, she takes garri flakes and sometimes, ordinary water, which does not give her enough energy to breastfeed her baby. It was as a result of not having adequate food intake that led to the fainting spells.

With a feeble voice and tears streaming down her face, Favour disclosed that she uses only napkins for her baby, due to the hardship occasioned by the pandemic.

Favour’s case is just one of the many stories of breastfeeding mothers, who are going through deteriorating situations, and it seems there is no care or special attention to this vulnerable group coming from anywhere.

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Expectedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought intense socio-economic challenges to the populace, especially the vulnerable. Although, organisations and good spirited Nigerians have made various donations to cushion the harsh impact of the stay-at-home order, it appears the vulnerable in the society are not really feeling the effect.

The Guardian investigation revealed that being a breastfeeding mother during crises or emergency periods can be very challenging, as the effect of the quandaries can have devastating impacts on a mother’s emotional and physical health, thus affecting her ability to breastfeed.

Researches have shown that the first six months of breastfeeding is very important to a child’s health. Medical experts have also said breastfeeding is ‘the ultimate natural vaccine’ for babies. It boosts their immune systems, as breast milk provides vital nutrients that support baby’s physical and cognitive development. Without proper breastfeeding, a baby’s risk to having diarrhoea and pneumonia increases severely.   

And at some point, when the mother is unable to provide food for the child, malnutrition sets in.
 
Though the measures put in place by the Federal and Rivers State governments to enforce the lockdown are yielding good result, people like Favour and others in the vulnerable category are, however, not finding it funny. Invariably, the lockdown has caused food scarcity, as well as forced prices of consumables up.
 
Ugochi Uwado is another breastfeeding mother in Port Harcourt City Local Government Council Area with a five-month-old baby.

She said: “We used to buy sachet milk from the neighbourhood, but since the total lockdown in Diobu axis, there is no place to buy such things. I have no food to eat, even though I am breastfeeding. Sometimes, I faint because my baby is only taking breast milk for now. But even if he wants to eat food that will give additional nutrients, there no is money to buy it. My husband is a mechanic. Our only income used to come from his daily work, but because of the lockdown, he has not been going to his shop. So, we don’t have money.”

Chinyere Asoegbe, a mother with a four-month-old baby, who lives in Rumuekini in Obio/Akpor Local Council Area and hawks okpa (moi moi), disclosed that her baby had been sick and there was no money to buy drugs, talk less of foods.

“I used to get small money every day after hawking, but now that we cannot display our wares or sell them, life has become unbearable for me and my family. As I speak, there is nothing in the house to eat. I am feeling very sick and there is nobody to help.”

Similarly, Dorathy Uche, mother of a five-month-old baby, who teaches in a private school, said life has been pretty tough. She narrated how she was sent back home in March, this year, by her proprietor without salary, when the state governor, Nyesom Wike, ordered that all schools in the state be shut.

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She said: “My husband’s business is no longer functioning, due to the lockdown. To make ends meet, my husband converted his Mazda salon car to a taxi. Unfortunately, this has not yielded the desired result. My husband goes out by 8am and returns at 5pm with less than N1, 000 because people are staying at home, and there are very few commuters. The few persons that come out have resorted to trekking. The situation we have found ourselves is so painful.

“When we heard the amount people are donating to help fight COVID-19 and help the poor, we screamed. Yet, we are dying of hunger. Our children are starving. It is so painful that government cannot give special consideration to vulnerable people like us. The nursing mothers, pregnant women and children need special attention. Even as a breastfeeding mother, if we cook two sachets of Indomie noodles, I eat a little, so that the children can have enough to eat. When I breastfeed, I feel dizzy, because my body does not have enough nutrients.”
 
A visit to the Primary Health Care Centre at Okija Street in Mile One, Diobu, Port Harcourt, revealed that the facility, which used to be filled to capacity with breastfeeding mothers and their babies, as well as pregnant women, was near empty. The three mothers and a pregnant woman at the facility told The Guardian that they trekked long distances to get to the centre, adding that mothers who have no food to eat cannot walk such distances otherwise, they may collapse while attempting to do so.
 
The Chief Nursing Officer at the facility, who refused to disclose her name, said breastfeeding mothers are going through pathetic situations in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
Also, a Consultant Pediatrician at the Rivers University Teaching Hospital, Dr. Appollous Josiah, explained that when a mother is not feeding well, the quality and quantity of breast milk reduces.

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Josiah, who is the Chief Medical Director of Oasis Children Specialist Hospital, said: “The breast converts the food available in the mother’s blood stream, extracts it to make breast milk for the child. But if the mother does not eat or feed well, the body starts burning the woman’s muscle and tissue, converting and trying to make food from it for the baby. So, the mother will start losing weight, just to provide breast milk for her child.

“Also, if the child does not feed well or have sufficient breast milk, it will have stunted growth, as not getting enough food hampers the baby’s growth. Its weight and height will be affected. Children at the early stage of life need a lot of good nutrition to develop intellectually. So, if the mother is hungry and cannot buy nutritious food, the child will defect intellectually.”
 
The paediatrician urged government to pay special attention to nursing mothers and other vulnerable persons in the society.

“Government should not just put a blanket ban on everybody everywhere. There should be palliatives, support for these women that are breast feeding, so that they can continue to breast feed their babies. If they can have one good quality meal for one day, it will help. These are the kind of people to be singled out for extra attention on COVID-19 palliatives.”

A consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, Dr. Eli Sukarime, said food gives energy, and when breastfeeding mothers do not feed well, their sugar levels will go down, which according to him, causes dizziness and also leads to fainting.

He said: “Lack of food reduces the blood level because food helps in building blood. So, shortage of blood leads to weakness and exposes a mother to infections, as her mother would not be able to pass nutrients to the baby, leading to difficulty in growth. The breast contains antibody that fights infections, so the baby will also be exposed to infections.

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“There will be such sicknesses as malaria and pneumonia. The baby’s resistance level will be low and in the long term, the baby may have brain infection and may not survive.”

He advised that breastfeeding mothers, pregnant women and children should be given special attention.
 
On her part, the Chairman, Nigerian Medical Association in Rivers State, Dr. Adebiyi Obelebra, regretted that the lockdown impacts heavily on breastfeeding mothers. She urged government to target and give them priority in the distribution of palliatives to alleviate their conditions during this period.

A gender activist, Constance Meju, also urged government to focus on breastfeeding mothers, pregnant women, children and the elderly in their palliatives distributions, which should not be done through political party ward leaders.

She said: “Everyone knows that they are vulnerable. I know that the state government has made arrangements for distribution of palliatives, but the way the process is being handled, it is not trickling down to the needy. We do not have a structured system. Part of the monies donated for the fight against COVID-19 can be used to care for the vulnerable, which will encourage them.”  
 

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