Tackling malnutrition is as urgent as ever

Published October 28, 2019, 4:33 PM

by Former Senator Atty. Joey D. Lina




Atty. Joey D. Lina

Atty. Joey D. Lina

The alarming data in the latest global report on malnutrition continues to be disturbing: One of every three Filipino children is “irreversibly stunted” by age two.

The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), in its report  “The State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, Food and Nutrition,” warned anew that poor diets, inadequate nutrition, and food systems are causing Filipino children to suffer from varied forms of malnutrition which result in their being stunted or too short for their age, too thin, or overweight.

“Malnutrition can cause permanent, widespread damage to a child’s growth, development, and well-being. Stunting in the first 1,000 days is associated with poorer performance in school, both because malnutrition affects brain development, and also because malnourished children are more likely to get sick and miss school. Hidden hunger can cause blindness (vitamin A deficiency), impair learning (iodine deficiency), and increase the risk of a mother dying in childbirth (iron deficiency). Overweight and obesity can lead to serious illnesses like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” the report said.

For the bigger picture, it added — “And this disruption to children’s physical and cognitive development stays with them into adulthood, compromising their economic prospects and putting their futures at risk. Collectively, the loss of potential and productivity has huge implications for the broader socio-economic development of societies and nations. It undermines countries’ ability to develop ‘human capital’, or the overall levels of education, training, skills, and health in a population.”

Undernutrition in early childhood, derived from an inadequate diet, both in quantity and quality, causes around 7 percent of Filipino children to be too thin for their height, among others. “The undernutrition facts in the Philippines are disturbing – one in three 12-23-month-old children suffer from anaemia while one in three children are irreversibly stunted by the age of 2. On the other hand, 1 in 10 adolescents are obese from wrong eating habits,” according to Oyun Dendevnorov, UNICEF Philippines representative.

The phenomenon of child undernutrtion – which has three indicators: underweight (low weight-for-age, including low birth weight), wasting (low weight-for-height), and stunting (low height-for-age) – is alarming indeed, considering that it is the underlying cause of 95 child deaths daily in the Philippines as revealed in UNICEF’s 2015 Unite for Children report.

Other reports also paint the grim picture our country is in concerning undernutrition. The 2016 Global Nutrition Report said the Philippines is among those with the highest wasting and stunting prevalence. Of a total of 130 countries ranked lowest to highest on wasting prevalence, the Philippines is ranked 93rd at 7.9 % prevalence. On stunting, the Philippines has 30.3 % prevalence and is at 88th spot out of 132 countries also ranked lowest to highest.

Health experts warn that “chronic undernutrition leads to stunted growth, which is irreversible and is associated with impaired cognitive ability and reduced school performance, as well as poor work capacity and productivity.”

The Lancet, one of the world’s oldest and prestigious weekly peer-reviewed general medical journals, published a 2010 exhaustive study which “found that height-for-age at two years is the best predictor of human capital, and that undernutrition is associated with lower human capital.” It also said that “it is during the child’s first 1000 days when the most pronounced growth reduction is observed compared to other stages in a child’s development.”

There’s also a World Bank study that found out that “a one-percent loss in adult height as a result of childhood stunting is linked with a 1.4-percent loss in economic productivity, resulting in 20 percent less earnings as adult.” It added that stunting “is associated with up to 3 percent GDP losses annually.”

With all the grim stats and dire warnings on malnutrition, there’s no doubt that effective interventions are imperative. What needs to be done?

Lourdes Vega, chief of the National Nutrition Council’s Policy and Planning Division, was studio guest last Sunday in my DZMM teleradyo program Sagot Ko ‘Yan  (8 to 9 a.m. Sundays) and she said the full implementation of RA 11148, the Kalusugan at Nutrisyon ng Mag-Nanay Act, is key to addressing malnutrition.

The law enacted in November 2018 is a measure “scaling up the national and local health and nutrition programs through a strengthened integrated strategy for maternal, neonatal, child health and nutrition in the first one thousand (1,000) days of life, appropriating funds therefor and for other purposes.”

Vega also stressed the need for local government units to intensify their efforts to fight malnutrition and undertake activities similar to the Food Always In The Home (FAITH) program that I pursued when I was governor of Laguna starting in 1995. Such program, which has since been adapted by the National Nutrition Council, enabled people to produce clean nutritious food in their backyards, thereby reducing home food costs by as much as 50 percent while improving family nutrition.

Amid the enormity of the malnutrition problem in our country, I find it extremely necessary for a National Summit on Nutrition to be conducted with the participation of local officials belonging to the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines and multi-sector representatives from civic organizations, as well as those from health, education, social welfare, and other key departments of the national government.

With the urgency of the situation, there is no time to waste for all concerned to come together and map out various strategies to effectively address the continuing menace plaguing Filipino children.

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