01 February 2011

UNICEF and EU Tackles Asian Nutrition Problem

Millions of children throughout Southeast and South Asia are not getting the nutrition they need for proper physical and mental development during childhood or to maximize their productivity as adults, according to UNICEF.

To help fight this, the European Union has just announced a grant of 20 million euros to UNICEF to tackle undernutrition in the region, with the Philippines one of five focus countries.

The Maternal and Child Nutrition Security project will benefit the entire region but places special emphasis on Bangladesh, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Nepal and the Philippines — five countries with great needs and with potential for success.

More than a third of child deaths and 11 percent of the total disease burden worldwide are due to maternal and child undernutrition, according to data presented in a groundbreaking series on nutrition in The Lancet in 2008.

In terms of global stunting, UNICEF’s 2009 nutrition report “Tracking Progress on Child and Maternal Nutrition: A Survival and Development Priority” revealed that nearly half of the 24 countries with the largest number of chronically undernourished children are in Southeast and South Asia, despite relatively good economic growth in recent years.

"Unfortunately, it doesn't necessarily follow that as an economy gets better, nutrition gets better — it's not a direct link," said France Begin, UNICEF nutrition advisor in Asia-Pacific. “In spite of economic growth in several countries throughout the region, we still see rates of undernutrition that are far too high.”

For years, undernutrition — manifested by a child with low height for age (stunting), low weight for age (underweight), low weight for height (wasting), and/or deficient in vitamins or minerals (micronutrient deficiencies) — has been a persistent problem, but one receiving little attention as well as lack of funding.

In the Philippines, the situation for children and mothers is serious.

"Proper infant and young child feeding practices are critical in reducing child mortality. In the Philippines, one in five (21 percent) children under five years of age are underweight and one in three (32 percent) are stunted. Anemia continues to affect 42.5 percent of pregnant Filipina mothers, making this a significant public health problem," said Abdul Alim, UNICEF Philippines’ deputy representative.

The link between economic progress and undernutrition has become a focus for economists in recent years, and this is putting the problem on the global agenda.

"Undernutrition leads to increased mortality and morbidity and hence reduced economic output and increased healthcare spending," wrote three economists in a 2008 paper on hunger and malnutrition for the Copenhagen Consensus.

"The combined effects on mortality, morbidity and productivity are estimated to result in economic losses of billions of dollars," they said.

This increased attention to the link between undernutrition and sustainable development led the European Union to target maternal and child nutrition security, especially from conception to the first two years of life.

The major grant is an important contribution to a multi-donor action, which should leverage gains for pooled resources.

During the four-year project, UNICEF will work with governments and partners to directly benefit 30 million children and five million pregnant and lactating women.

It will also work to increase knowledge and understanding of what good nutrition means among policy makers, medical professionals and families.

The Maternal and Child Nutrition Security project aims to innovate and build on current policies and practices in countries and by doing so highlights nutrition as an Asian priority in the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.