With July being Nutrition Month, it is imperative to refocus attention on the gnawing hunger and malnutrition of impoverished Filipino children who are prone to more suffering as the coronavirus crisis rages on.
Each day, around 95 children in our country die from malnutrition, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) said. With such a disturbing death toll, it can even be said that malnutrition is worse than the coronavirus pandemic!
Malnutrition encompasses all forms of poor nutrition, whether it be excess consumption of nutrients (overnutrition) usually afflicting the obese, or inadequate consumption of nutrients (undernutrition) that leads to wasting and stunting – common among those suffering from extreme and prolonged hunger.
Among the various forms of malnutrition, stunting is deemed to be the worst, and it remains prevalent. Thus, “Batang Pinoy SANA TALL, Iwas Stunting SAMA ALL!” is the theme for this year’s Nutrition Month.
“One in three Filipino children under 5 years old are stunted, which means they are too short for their age, while roughly 7 percent of children are too thin for their height. Moreover, a 10th of Filipino adolescents are now overweight,” UNICEF Philippines Representative Oyun Dendevnorov said.
“While food is important for the nutrition of children,” Dendevnorov explained, “nutrition goes beyond mere feeding programs. Increased vulnerability to diseases due to poor health-seeking behavior, incomplete immunization, poor hygiene and care practices, and inadequate diet — both in quantity and quality — causes undernutrition in early childhood.”
The pandemic has worsened the plight of malnourished Filipino children.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and the Enhanced Community Quarantine did not only create a situation that posed challenges to the nutrition programs for severely malnourished children as operations of health centers have been disrupted, worse, it has resulted to the inability of families to meet their basic food requirements due to income losses,” lamented Dr. Amado Parawan, Health and Nutrition Advisor of Save the Children Philippines.
“The situation of these children and their families is further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic as they have to stay in cramped spaces, with limited access to water, clean toilets and hygiene facilities, thus, making it difficult to comply with health protocols of frequent handwashing, and social distancing,” according to Atty. Alberto Muyot, CEO of the children’s organization.
“Children who die from COVID-19 may have been suffering from acute malnutrition or wasting caused by hunger with complications such as pneumonia and dehydration due to diarrhea.” Muyot said. “Unemployment in the time of health crisis adversely impacts the vulnerable and marginalized, especially children, pregnant and lactating mothers, those with disabilities, and the poorest of the poor as the loss of income of household providers, breadwinners means less provision of food,” he explained.
Even prior to the pandemic, the situation on malnutrition was grim.
The UNICEF, in its 2015 Unite for Children Report, said around 95 child deaths occur daily in the Philippines due to undernutrition – the “underlying cause in 45 percent of child deaths worldwide.”
Child undernutrition has three indicators: Underweight (low weight-for-age, including low birth weight), wasting (low weight-for-height), and stunting (low height-for-age).
The Philippines is among those with highest wasting and stunting prevalence, according to the Global Nutrition Report in 2016. Of a total of 130 countries ranked lowest to highest on wasting prevalence, the Philippines was ranked 93rd at 7.9 % prevalence. On stunting, the Philippines has 30.3 % prevalence and at 88th spot out of 132 countries also ranked lowest to highest.
“UNICEF firmly believes that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life from conception up to two years are critical in establishing a child’s foundation for physical growth and brain development. Yet infants are not fed well and are therefore not thriving. Only a third of babies are exclusively breastfed during the first six months. Around 44 percent of children aged 6-23 months are not given fruits and vegetables, and 59 percent are not fed eggs, dairy products, fish or meat. They are not getting their required nutritional intake by consuming a balanced diet of at least five of the seven food groups,” Dendevnorov said to describe what Filipino kids lack.
The National Nutrition Council (NNC) has been exerting efforts to address malnutrition through the Philippine Plan of Action for Nutrition (PPAN) 2017-2022 with special focus on the first 1000 days of life. The NNC has even adapted the Food Always In The Home (FAITH) program that I pursued when I was governor of Laguna to enable people to produce clean nutritious food in their backyards, thereby reducing home food costs by as much as 50 percent while improving family nutrition.
But the NNC still needs help. “We at the NNC are urging key stakeholders at the national, regional and local government units to carry out the PPAN 2017-2022 and give particular attention to the first 1,000 days of life to give our Filipino children a brighter future,” NNC executive director Dr. Azucena Dayanghirang said.
Amid the extreme urgency of the situation, stakeholders, led by government, must indeed intensify efforts to tackle the menace of malnutrition, a menace worse than the coronavirus pandemic, relentlessly plaguing Filipino children.
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