KARACHI: Pakistan is facing a silent catastrophe of malnutrition as nearly half of the country’s children and mothers are suffering from under-nutrition. The crisis is among the worst in the world and has only gone from bad to worse over the decades, said experts at a seminar on Thursday.
“This situation [malnutrition in Pakistan] is worse than that in much of sub-Saharan Africa,” a slide of a presentation cried as experts understood that the condition in Sindh was worse than the national averages.
The seminar was organised by the UN-funded Development Partners for Nutrition (DPN) and the Save the Children to impart information to journalists about dangers associated with the burgeoning health disaster.
“This is a life and death crisis for many… but also causes impaired development with life-long effects,” said in a presentation compiled by the Development Partners.
It said more than 1.5 million children in Pakistan were suffering from acute malnutrition, making them susceptible to infectious diseases which might even lead to death. “Long-term (chronic) malnutrition undermines both physical and mental development; nearly half of Pakistan’s children are chronically malnourished, and have their brain development and immune systems impaired, with life-long consequences,” it said.
The experts said the situation had not improved for decades. “Pakistan risks being left behind in the global economy if it fails to act soon”.
They said that without that situation changing, Pakistan risked suffering from a ‘demographic nightmare’ of a growing unskilled, economically unproductive population, rather than the ‘demographic dividend’ which had powered its neighbours’ growth.
Describing the malnutrition in Sindh, the participants in the meeting were told that only 52 per cent of women had normal weights for their heights, 24pc of women were underweight, 59pc of pregnant women were anaemic and 24pc of women were overweight or obese.
Among children under five years, stunting was found in 50pc of children and wasting in 18pc while 41pc were found underweight.
Some 37pc mothers and 47pc children were found with vitamin A deficiency. Some 73pc of children suffer from moderate to severe anaemia (highest in Pakistan) and only 52pc of Sindhi families used iodised salt.
The experts stunned the participants by saying that current malnutrition crisis in Pakistan had been estimated to cost the economy 3pc of the gross domestic product (GDP) per year.
“Pakistan cannot afford to sustain this drain on the economy,” warned Dr Fatima, provincial manager of Micronutrient Initiatives (MI).
The losses in the economy were due to the estimated impact of malnutrition on learning, earning and health. To put this in perspective, the energy crisis was estimated to cost 2pc of the GDP.
The experts believed that if Pakistan implemented even the health sector interventions to address malnutrition, rates of stunting (chronic malnutrition) could be cut by one-third.
“…but other sectors such as social protection, water and sanitation, agriculture and education also need to play their part, and to see this challenge as core to their role. This requires commitment from leadership to plan and implement multi-sectoral interventions.” They said that evidence-based and high-impact nutrition interventions had not yet been implemented at a large scale in Pakistan and that should be a priority for policymakers, but so far this had not happened.
Less than one-third of pregnant women received recommended vitamins and minerals during pregnancy; and almost half of all mothers suffered from anaemia.
Only 45pc of households used soap and water to wash hands, contributing to the fact that one in five children under five in Pakistan had had diarrhoea in the past two weeks.
“This sort of level of infection prevents nutrients from food being absorbed, and directly leads to many cases of acute malnutrition,” said an expert.
The audience was informed that increasing agricultural production alone was not enough. Pakistan was producing more wheat than ever, yet malnutrition rates were static.
“This is why many sectors and stakeholders must be involved in tackling malnutrition, and this needs sustained and high-level leadership.”
Iqbal Detho of the Save the Children Sindh opened the discussion about the role of media in highlighting nutrition during the post-election period.
He emphasised the importance of putting nutrition on the agenda of media in the post-election situation.
On behalf of the DPN, Dr Irshad Danish, said malnutrition could be ended in a generation if the government and civil society worked together and the issue was recognised and prioritised by all stakeholders.
He added that political leaders and decision makers must be fully aware of the situation of nutrition to make and prioritise effective policies and programmes. Kiross Tefera, nutrition specialist at the Unicef Sindh, said a lot had to be done in the nutrition sector and the responsibility did not lie with the government alone. The media and journalists needed to play their part as well, he said.
“There is a lot of data out there which should be shared with the media regularly,” he added and stressed the importance of nutrition in the country saying that a political will could help change the situation. The event was attended by a number of electronic and print media persons from Karachi, Larkana and Shikarpur press clubs.