A recently released Unicef global report, “The State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, Food and Nutrition,” presents an up-to-date picture of the state of children’s malnutrition around the world. The data and evidence synthesized in the report point to the fact that the world is facing the triple burden of malnutrition—undernutrition manifested in stunting and wasting; hidden hunger or deficiencies of vitamins and minerals; and overweight, a rising issue in children in the Philippines. All impede children’s growth and development, the report cautioned.
The trends are worrying: One in three Filipino children under 5 years old are stunted, which means they are too short for their age, while roughly 7 percent of children are too thin for their height. Moreover, a 10th of Filipino adolescents are now overweight.
At the center of the malnutrition challenge is a broken food system that fails to provide children with the diets they need to grow well, the report revealed. Unicef presents new data and analyses of malnutrition amid the rapid changes of the 21st century including urbanization, globalization and climate change. Recommendations are also set forth to put the children’s right to nutrition at the heart of food systems.
While food is important for the nutrition of children, nutrition goes beyond mere feeding programs. Increased vulnerability to diseases due to poor health-seeking behavior, incomplete immunization, poor hygiene and care practices, and inadequate diet — both in quantity and quality — causes undernutrition in early childhood.
Unicef firmly believes that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life from conception up to two years are critical in establishing a child’s foundation for physical growth and brain development. Yet infants are not fed well and are therefore not thriving. Only a third of babies are exclusively breastfed during the first six months. Around 44 percent of children aged 6-23 months are not given fruits and vegetables, and 59 percent are not fed eggs, dairy products, fish or meat. They are not getting their required nutritional intake by consuming a balanced diet of at least five of the seven food groups.
Similarly, the report found that adolescents are eating more unhealthy food and less healthy food. Adolescent obesity among Filipinos has almost tripled in the last 15 years as processed foods high in salt, fats and sugar are becoming more accessible and affordable.
The Philippine government recognizes that malnutrition remains a significant public health concern in the country. Stunting in one in three children is now seen as one of the major impediments to human development and is recognized as a well-established marker of poor child development. Wasting and overweight/obesity are also seen as major drivers of morbidity and mortality.
In response, the government has developed strategies and targets through the Philippine Plan of Action for Nutrition (PPAN) 2017-2022. The country also passed Republic Act No. 11148 or the Kalusugan at Nutrisyon ng Mag-Nanay Act, or the first 1,000 days law, which aims to end stunting and all forms of malnutrition through sound investments and comprehensive strategies.
Unicef calls on the Philippine government to continue the implementation and scale-up of evidence-based nutrition interventions. Unicef also urges decision-makers and local chief executives to prioritize and increase funding for essential nutrition interventions in local investment plans.
Lastly, the government needs to ensure that nutrition committees at all levels — with multisectoral representatives from health, social welfare, sanitation, education, agriculture, interior and local government, and others—are functional, with clear roles and deliverables to coordinate, collectively review, decide and act to improve the nutrition situation of every Filipino child.
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Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov is Unicef representative in the Philippines.
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