Nutritional crisis: the impact of micronutrient deficiencies

Thirty four per cent of children in the province qualify as underweight, while 48 per cent are stunted

Wisal Yousafzai March 28, 2022
Malnourished children wait to be treated at UNICEF medical centre. PHOTO: REUTERS


Delay in passing the Food Fortification Act 2021 by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) Assembly has sparked concerns about health among some of the most marginalised groups in the northwestern province.

Owing to the lack of relevant legislation, it is feared that thousands of women and children are faced with complications like iron deficiency, which is a leading cause of maternal and neonatal deaths in K-P. Per the National Health Nutrition Survey 2018, stunting and wasting, caused by chronic undernutrition, is a dangerously common occurrence among children in Pakistan, while most women live with iron deficiency.

The survey report said that an estimated 40.2 per cent of Pakistani children under the age of five years are stunted and nearly 17.7 per cent are wasted, 54 per cent children are anemic, 52 per cent are deficient in vitamin A, 63 per cent are deficient in vitamin D, while 28.6 per cent suffer from iron deficiency anemia and 18.6 per cent are zinc deficient in the country.

In terms of dietary needs, it further highlighted that an estimated 66 million people in Pakistan are dependent on wheat flour from Roller Flour Mills, out of which 19 million are women of reproductive age and 9.7 million are children under the age of five.

In addition to that, over 156 million people in Pakistan consume edible oil from the formal production sector. From an economic standpoint, estimates further suggest that healthcare expenses, illnesses, deaths, decreased physical productivity and impaired cognitive learning caused by micronutrient deficiencies accounts for a 3 per cent loss in gross domestic production (GDP) annually, which is more than accumulated losses due to energy crisis (2 per cent of GDP).

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Moreover, stunting can cause a phenomenal 46 per cent loss in earnings in later years of life, which means that newborns with such deficiencies add a burden of USD 7.6 billion annually on the country’s economy. Regarding K-P, the 2018 survey highlighted that the burden of malnutrition is becoming increasingly apparent as 34 per cent of children in the province qualify as underweight, while 48 per cent are stunted, with children in rural areas more likely to be affected by undernutrition than their urban counterparts.

Dr. Irfan Khan a nutritionist working with the Nation International’s Food Fortification Programme (FFP) said that Nutrition International is working closely with the food department and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Food Safety and Halal Food Authority (KPFSHFA) to sustainably improve access and consumption of wheat flour fortified with iron, zinc, Vitamin B12, and folic acid. “We are extending our support to the government in regard to approval of mandatory food fortification legislation, in addition to strengthening the working relationship with local flour mills and capacity building of Pakistan Flour Mill Association,” he told.

Addressing the matter K-P Minister for Food, Science and Technology Muhammad Atif Khan said that the Food Fortification Act 2021 has been approved by the cabinet and will soon be passed by the provincial assembly. “We will ensure to implement the law to provide safe and healthy food to our people,” he added.

Speaking further the minister also expressed his concerns about the lack of regulation regarding edible items being sold in front of schools and colleges, which he believes are unhealthy to consume and risk children’s health. “The government has already established mobile testing labs in seven districts of the province and in the next year, these labs will be will cover the entire province, as well as to the merged districts,” he told The Express Tribune.


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