Malnutrition crisis

FOR several years, now, the alarm bells have been ringing but have largely been ignored by policymaking circles. It has been four years since a survey conducted by Unicef and the Sindh government likened the levels of malnutrition in northern Sindh to those prevailing in sub-Saharan Africa. While this was due in part to the devastating floods that had occurred a few months earlier, in March 2011 the World Bank found that as a result of inflation the country`s poorest families were spending 70pc or more of their total income on food alone. Years later, the situation has not improved. Indeed, it has grown to such disturbing proportions that it is no longer possible for the authorities to ignore it. Last week, during an inter-provincial meeting in Islamabad chaired by the health minister, Saira Afzal Tarar, the director nutrition, Dr Baseer Khan Achakzai, pointed out that nutrition indicators had deteriorated over the past decade; according to him, 43.7pc children below the age of five in the country are stunted, 15.1pc wasted, and 31.5 underweight because of the lack of proper nutrition.

At the meeting, it was decided that the way forward lies in fortifying food, particularly wheat. In fact, the meeting was told that this staple provides the most calories for Pakistanis, but that 60pc to 80pc of its nutrients are lost during the milling process. Fortification, then, is one answer and the state needs to embark on the project with speed. However, other means of addressing the crisis must also be put into operation. Most obviously, it is necessary to initiate a large-scale awareness-raising campaign to give nutrition-related information. Small studies have from time to time found that poverty alone is not the problem; malnutrition has been found even in households that can afford sufficient food, simply because of people`s lack of awareness about a proper diet and food nutrients. Adding vital vitamins to staples is not enough; the citizenry also needs to be told what vitamins and minerals are, and which foods contain what.

Published in Dawn