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Malnutrition and the Olympics

There’s a whole constellation of issues surrounding the Summer Olympics unfolding in Rio de Janeiro. Much of the heat of media coverage is trained on the “doping scandal” which has targeted more than 100 Russian athletes ensnared in charges of failing drug tests. This came amid allegations that the use of banned substances was “state-sponsored,” so that critics said a blanket ban should have been issued, instead of clearing 271 Russian athletes, about 70 percent of the Russian delegation.

Also controversial are claims of activists that even as Brazil is spending “billions” on hosting the Olympics, at home money for basic, vital services is unavailable. Already, even as the Olympic Torch makes its way to its final perch at the Olympics venue, crowds of protesters have met the delegations accompanying the Torch, resulting in violent dispersal operations.

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This comes amid serious crises that Brazil faces, not least of which is the threat of Zika, a mosquito-borne disease that has targeted the fetuses of pregnant women who are bitten. Although the virus itself leaves only minor health issues—mainly a mild rash—on adults who are bitten, it has devastating effects on the fetuses, who are born with undersized brains that leave them physically and mentally weakened. Zika has itself become an Olympic mini-scandal, with many athletes from around the world expressing fears and reluctance to visit Brazil because of the menace of the deadly mosquitoes.

Above all these looms a political thunderstorm, with President Dilma Rousseff facing impeachment charges after a Senate committee recommended that she be removed from office in an impeachment trial. The decision, said an AFP report, comes at a sensitive time, on the eve of the Olympics opening ceremony. Presiding over the opening was apparently a dream of Rousseff, who wanted the event to “showcase Brazil’s growing economic power and political stability.” Oh, well, so much for political pipe dreams.

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But these controversies are not the focus of this column. Instead, it’s an issue that may be “tangential” to the Olympics or even to athleticism, but is in fact essential to good health and physical and mental ability.

We’re talking about malnutrition, and a gathering held on the eve of the Olympics headlined by the World Health Organization’s Dr. Margaret Chan with Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, former president of Brazil.

The event, held last Thursday and hosted by the governments of Brazil, the United Kingdom and Japan, was called “Nutrition for Growth,” in which world leaders were urged “to increase financial investments in nutrition and scale up successful strategies.” The conference called for a high-level, head-of-state pledging session for nutrition next year, to bring an end to malnutrition by 2030.

Reports claim that the “threat of malnutrition—including undernutrition, stunting, overweight and obesity—has never been more urgent.” It cites statistics showing that one in three people worldwide suffers from some form of malnutrition, and that nearly half of children who die before the age of five “do so because they are malnourished.”

Of those who do survive, the report adds, “nearly one in four—around 160 million children globally—suffers from lifelong effects of stunted growth and impaired development.” And yet, in painful irony, nearly 41 million children worldwide are overweight or obese.

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Timing a high-level summit to discuss malnutrition around the world with the holding of the Olympics seems to be deliberate. This year’s “Nutrition for Growth” follows the “Hunger Summit” held in 2012 coinciding with the London Olympics, where $23 billion was committed to combat undernutrition and improve millions of lives.

Brazil was a “natural choice” for this year’s gathering, said Dr. Chan, since it “has been the leader in reducing malnutrition.”

In recent years, said a report, Brazil has spent an average of $22 billion a year on food and nutrition policies, including innovative programs such as human breast milk banks, locally sourced school lunches and cash transfer programs. As a result, said speakers, “Brazil has seen tremendous progress in combating undernutrition, reducing child stunting by over 80 percent in a generation, and increasing exclusive breastfeeding rates from 2 percent to 39 percent.”

“Brazil’s achievement is an inspiration to low- and middle-income countries throughout the world,” said Shawn Baker, director of nutrition for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “Because of Brazil, we know this is not an intractable issue. Progress is possible.”

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Just in time for the Olympics, new and familiar champions “have emerged to lend their voices to the cause.”

Robson Caetano da Silva, a Brazilian sprinter and four-time Olympian, recalled that as “a child living in a slum in Rio, there was no food when I opened the fridge. Sports gave me an opportunity to overcome this and succeed. We should give this same opportunity to all children.”

Olympic distance runner and human rights activist Tegla Loroupe also remembered her childhood “growing up hungry in Kenya.” As an athlete “who did not have good nutrition, I had a challenge. Sports helped me to overcome it.”

And through video, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver spoke about his own “Food Revolution” and called on the world “to put an end to obesity and undernourishment.”

Of course, malnutrition, undernutrition and stunting are big problems in the Philippines, where the figures have changed little since maybe 40 years ago. How about putting all that official ire and effort from killing druggies to helping children live longer and healthier? Not as “sexy” maybe, but to my mind, more positive and much more necessary, not just for now but for the long term as well.

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TAGS: malnutrition, Nutrition for Growth, Rio Olympics, World Health Organization
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