Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Is malnutrition an issue in East Asia & Pacific region?

Children eat a meal of sticky rice which fills the stomach but can lead to malnutrition
© UNICEF/LAOPDR00933/JIM HOLMES
By Christopher de Bono, Chief of Communication, UNICEF East Asia & Pacific

When I visit some areas and even some countries in our region, I feel tall. But I am not. Much as I enjoy the strange sensation of being able to easily see street signs and watch movies and football games over the heads of everyone around me (I am most definitely not considered tall in my own country, Australia) I look forward to the day when all children in Asia and the Pacific are sufficiently well-nourished in childhood to tower over me in stature as they grow to adulthood, and to develop to their full intellectual and physical potential.

Is malnutrition an issue in East Asia & Pacific region?  The answer is a clear yes! 

Despite all the progress that has been made in East Asia and the South Pacific, stunting  ( low height for age in children and a key indicator of chronic malnutrition) is still widespread. It is the most prevalent nutrition problem in the region.
This graph shows how stunting is widespread; the most prevalent nutrition problem in the region.  Three to 4 countries are in the very high prevalence category; 8 in the moderate to high prevalence and only 6 in the low prevalence.  Clearly these data are in contrast with the economic growth that is happening in this region. 
The consequences of stunting are very serious -- and they are life long. A stunted child is likely to experience greater difficulty learning than a child receiving adequate nutrition and when she reaches adulthood, despite her best efforts, chances are she will be less productive than she should be, will earn less, and will face a higher risk of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases.

In several countries in the region significantly less than half of all children regularly receive food that is of adequate nutritional quality. This may be because caregivers and parents lack information about nutrition – what is good and what isn’t -  or it may be that they just can’t provide enough nutrient rich foods.  Either way, it is no surprise that these children do not grow tall and strong, and that their bodies and their brains do not develop as well as they could.  And it is likely that as food prices increase, under-nutrition may become even more significant and widespread.

At an ASEAN high-level meeting on food security in Bangkok this week, my boss, UNICEF’s Regional Director Dan Toole, made the point that under-nutrition is largely preventable and that proper targeted help delivers exceptionally high returns. He also acknowledged that although the poorest families suffer the most, improvements in nutrition lag far behind income growth, sometimes even children in families with reasonable incomes suffer from malnutrition.

And he called for concrete action to make a difference… he suggested a range of measures, like encouraging people to grow and eat foods with higher nutrient content, and  increasing the introduction of micronutrient fortification to staple foods. The example he gave was the Philippines National Food Authority’s work to increase the nutritional value of that ever-present staple of our diet -- rice – by fortifying it with iron and other micronutrients.

An Indonesian boy receives nutritious food. © UNICEF/Josh Estey
One programme that UNICEF is currently engaged in that seeks to help improve nutrition and overcome stunting and other consequences of poor nutrition is the partnership with the European Union called the Maternal and Young Child Nutrition Security Initiative in Asia.

This programme focuses on three countries in our region – Indonesia, Lao, and the Philippines – along with Nepal and Bangladesh in south Asia and aims to help some 30 million children and 5 million pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers. It covers an array of activities, from enabling governments to strengthen policies that support better food to encouraging people to eat locally grown micronutrient rich produce and providing new mothers with counseling on good feeding habits for their children.

If we can make the most of this investment, and we are working hard to do that, we will not solve the problem. But this investment by the EU, national governments and UNICEF could mean a radical decrease in stunting in the targeted countries. That, to me, is an inspiring thought. And on that note, back to work!

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