The ‘silent pandemic’ afflicting Filipino children

Published November 30, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Former Senator Atty. Joey D. Lina


Former Senator Atty. Joey D. Lina

It’s a pandemic within a pandemic, and it’s an urgent issue that we ought to focus on especially because November is National Children’s Month.

A recent World Bank (WB) study said that childhood under-nutrition, long considered to be a “silent pandemic” plaguing poor families even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, is of such high levels in the Philippines that it “can lead to a staggering loss of the country’s human and economic potential.”

The WB report released last June said that our country’s rate of stunting, deemed to be the worst form of under-nutrition, was 28.8 percent in 2019 among children under age five – placing the Philippines “fifth among countries in the East Asia and Pacific region, and among the top 10 countries globally.”

“When viewed through the lens of the World Bank’s Human Capital Index (HCI), the country’s 2020 HCI score of 0.52 predicts that the future productivity of children born today will be 48 percent below what they might achieve if they were to enjoy complete education and full health,” the WB study said of the Philippines.

Under-nutrition, the inadequate consumption of nutrients among those suffering from extreme and prolonged hunger, leads to wasting and stunting.

“While food is important for the nutrition of children,” says UNICEF Philippines Representative Oyun Dendevnorov, “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 under-nutrition in early childhood.”

At the height of the pandemic, the plight of Filipino children suffering from under-nutrition worsened.

“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,” according to Save the Children Philippines. “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.” In many areas where the poorest of the poor are situated, where vulnerable children and their pregnant and lactating mothers hardly get access to a doctor or nurse, the only healthcare professional encountered by the rural poor is the midwife or komadrona.

Tasked to care for and assist mother and child during pregnancy, birth and postnatal period, the komadrona is truly a hero to the rural poor. The komadrona plays multiple health care roles where there is severe shortage of other health professionals to address under-nutrition.

“It is during the child’s first 1,000 days when the most pronounced growth reduction is observed compared to other stages in a child’s development,” according to a 54-country exhaustive study on the effects of maternal and child under-nutrition published in 2010 in The Lancet. The study “found that height-for-age at two years was the best predictor of human capital, and that under-nutrition is associated with lower human capital.”

The National Nutrition Council (NNC) has been exerting efforts to address malnutrition through the Philippine Plan of Action for Nutrition 2017-2022 with special focus on the first 1,000 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.

Saving vulnerable Filipino children ought to be the focus of National Children’s Month as provided in RA 10661 that “commemorates the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 November 1989, and seeks to instill its significance in the Filipino consciousness.” When I was senator, I authored many laws for the Filipino child. These include RA 6972 – An act establishing a day care center in every barangay, instituting therein a total development and protection of children program, and RA 7610 or the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act. Strict observance of these laws would go a long way in efforts to save vulnerable Filipino children.

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