Malnutrition in Pakistan — urgent action needed

One concerning issue is the inadequate intake of essential micronutrients among Pakistani school children


Alina Effendi June 04, 2023
The writer has studied film and TV production at NYU. She is a part of The Express Tribune editorial team

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Families around the world face tough challenges as they strive for a better future. They endure long walks to school and work in physically demanding jobs, driven by their desire to build a brighter tomorrow. However, optimism alone is not enough. They need both physical and mental strength to match their unwavering determination. By harnessing this strength, they steadily make progress towards turning their dreams into reality. But how can our nation prosper when the foundation of our future, our youth, suffers from malnutrition?

In Pakistan, malnutrition poses a silent threat to the health, development and future of its people. Despite progress in various sectors, malnutrition remains alarmingly prevalent, hindering the nation’s growth and prosperity. It is crucial that we prioritise this crisis and take immediate action to address its root causes. By investing in sustainable solutions, raising awareness and fostering collaboration, Pakistan can pave the way for a healthier and more prosperous future for all its citizens.

Within Pakistan’s borders, millions of vulnerable individuals, especially children and women, silently bear the consequences of malnutrition. Shocking statistics reveal that nearly half of children under the age of five experience stunted growth, and 30% suffer from wasting. This situation highlights the seriousness of the issue and demands our unwavering attention. Malnutrition weakens the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to diseases and hampers cognitive development, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and underdevelopment.

One concerning issue is the inadequate intake of essential micronutrients among Pakistani school children. Shockingly, over 80% of children fail to meet the recommended intake for calcium, iron, zinc and vitamin A. Vitamin C deficiency affects 60% of children, while B-vitamin and folate deficiencies affect 25% and 75% of children, respectively. Furthermore, 64% of children consume insufficient protein while 30% consume excessive amounts of total fat and 10% have higher carbohydrate intake than recommended.

Iron deficiency is one of the most prevalent issues among children in Pakistan. Studies reveal that nearly half of children under the age of five suffer from iron deficiency, affecting their growth, causing frequent illness and fatigue and hindering their learning abilities. This deficiency creates significant obstacles to their physical and cognitive development and increases school absenteeism.

Addressing the root causes and consequences of malnutrition requires a comprehensive approach. Factors such as poverty, limited access to quality healthcare and education, inadequate sanitation facilities, gender disparities, cultural practices, insufficient dietary diversity and food insecurity all contribute to the persistence of malnutrition. These consequences extend beyond individual suffering, impacting economic growth, human capital development, and burdening the healthcare system.

The economic cost of malnutrition in Pakistan is substantial, with estimated annual losses of approximately $3 billion due to micronutrient deficiencies alone. This loss accounts for around 1.33% of the country’s GDP. Reduced productivity, increased healthcare expenses and decreased economic growth contribute to this significant impact. The direct medical costs associated with micronutrient deficiencies in young children are estimated at around $19 million, emphasising the urgent need for effective interventions and investments.

To effectively combat malnutrition, a multi-sectoral approach is crucial. This approach involves health, agriculture, education and social protection programmes. Nutrition-sensitive interventions, such as improving agricultural practices, promoting sustainable farming techniques, enhancing women’s access to education and income opportunities, and strengthening healthcare systems are vital. Providing essential nutrients, promoting breastfeeding and advocating for proper infant and young child feeding practices are also essential.

Implementing sustainable solutions, such as food fortification, is crucial in addressing malnutrition. Fortifying staple foods with essential nutrients significantly improves diets and combats deficiencies. Food fortification reaches a wide population, requires no changes in dietary habits and ensures consistent nutrient content. Fortified children nutrition solutions, including iron-fortified complementary foods and fortified dairy products, play a crucial role in addressing iron deficiency and promoting healthy growth.

Education and awareness play a pivotal role in fighting malnutrition. Effective communication campaigns that highlight nutrition, hygiene and healthy behaviours; grassroots initiatives involving religious and community leaders; and social mobilisation campaigns promoting behavioural change are essential. Innovative solutions, like IRON+, which is highly absorbent in the human body, can make significant strides in overcoming malnutrition. Combining education, awareness and innovative solutions can improve community health.

The malnutrition crisis demands immediate attention and concerted efforts from all stakeholders. Prioritising nutrition-sensitive interventions, fostering collaboration and raising awareness are critical steps in breaking the cycle of malnutrition and unlocking the nation’s full potential. Investing in the health and well-being of citizens is not only a moral imperative but also a strategic move towards a brighter and more prosperous future. Together, let us pave the way for a nourished and resilient Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 4th, 2023.

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