Global perspective Human stories

Thailand: UN-backed survey shows impressive social progress, but challenges remain

Thailand: UN-backed survey shows impressive social progress, but challenges remain

Thailand has made significant progress in improving the situation of children and women in recent years, including nutrition, school attendance, access to safe water and sanitation, and coverage of essential health services, but remaining disparities need to be addressed, according a United Nations-backed survey.

“These are very impressive achievements that Thailand can be proud of,” UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) country representative Tomoo Hozumi said of the survey launched earlier this month.

“At the same time, the results show that there are some remaining challenges in reaching the international goals, and that the country can definitely make further progress towards them given its capacity, resources and wonderful track record so far,” he added, citing low infant breastfeeding, iodized salt consumption and knowledge about HIV/AIDS.

The Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), carried out by the National Statistical Office (NSO) with support from UNICEF, confirmed that Thailand’s rapid economic development and social development policies have led to significant social benefits for its people. It covered some 43,000 households and is the largest and most in-depth assessment of the situation of children and women ever undertaken in Thailand.

It found that at the national level the percentage of underweight children fell from 19 per cent in 1990 to 9 per cent in 2006; 98 per cent of children of primary school age were attending school; 83 per cent of one-year-old children were fully immunized against the six preventable childhood diseases; and the percentage of the population with access to safe water and sanitation was 94 per cent and 99 per cent, respectively.

One challenge clearly highlighted was the country’s low rate of exclusive breastfeeding. The percentage of infants exclusively breastfed during the first six months was only 5.4 per cent, one of the lowest rates in the world. Exclusive breastfeeding is the best way to guarantee that infants get all the nutrients they need during critical early development, and Mr. Hozumi urged steps to ensure that the marketing of breast milk substitutes to mothers follow internationally agreed standards and guidelines.

He also noted that Thailand trails many other countries in iodized salt consumption, the best and most economical way to ensure an adequate amount of this essential nutrient in the daily diet. Severe deficiencies can lead to mental retardation and even a mild lack can restrict children’s mental capacity, hurting their performance in school. Nationally, only 58 per cent of households consume iodized salt, with coverage falling to as low as 35 per cent in the northeast.

“This is an area where more effort is needed,” Mr. Hozumi said. “It requires the introduction of legislation that would make it legally compulsory to add iodine to all edible salt for human and animal consumption.”

The survey also showed that much more needs to be done to educate the public about HIV/AIDS. Less than half of 15- to 49-year-old women had comprehensive knowledge about HIV/AIDS, measured by knowing at least two ways to prevent transmission. Negative attitudes still persist, with 29 per cent of respondents replying that an HIV-positive teacher should not be allowed to teach, and 65 per cent saying they would not buy food from a vendor with HIV/AIDS.