Two million children are suffering from acute malnutrition in Bangladesh, where one-quarter of all households are hungry, according to a United Nations-backed study released today.
The report – by the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Institute of Public Nutrition (IPHN) – illustrates the clear link between malnutrition and food insecurity, with hungry households having a higher percentages of wasting children.
The survey was carried out during a harvest season from November 2008 to January 2009, and it cautioned that malnutrition levels are expected to be even higher during food scarcity periods.
Out of the two million wasting children between the ages of six months and five years, 500,000 are suffering from severe acute malnutrition, or severe malnutrition, according to the report, which was conducted to assess the impact of soaring food prices in Bangladesh in 2008.
Nearly 60 per cent of the households surveyed said they had insufficient food over the past 12 months, with real household income plunging 12 per cent between 2005 and 2008. At the end of last year, nearly two-thirds of income was spent on food, 10 per cent higher than the 2005 average. Many are in debt, coping with higher food prices, the survey said.
“Even if the prices of food are now falling, the crisis is far from being over,” said John Aylieff, WFP Representative in Bangladesh, warning of the impact that the current global financial crisis will have on the poor.
Nearly half of the children surveyed have stunted growth, representing a very high prevalence of chronic of malnutrition in South Asia, while over one third of them are also underweight, the report noted.
“The situation of child malnutrition in this country is a silent emergency,” said UNICEF Representative Carel de Rooy.
Malnutrition, which can directly cause death, affects child development and increases the risk of women dying during pregnancy and childbirth, he added. “In fact, it impacts on the society at large, affecting school performance, healthcare costs and productivity.”
Mr. de Rooy warned that unless the current malnutrition level is addressed, Bangladesh, which has a population of over 150 million according to the UN, is unlikely to achieve and sustain the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the eight ambitious anti-poverty targets with a 2015 deadline.
Almost half of all children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years – a critical age for development – were found to be not receiving the minimum meal frequency, with two-thirds of them not meeting the minimum dietary diversity of at least four food groups daily.
Further exacerbating the nutritional situation are poor infant and young child feeding practices, noted the survey, which said that half of mothers exclusively breastfeed children under six months. Although nearly 90 per cent of mothers continue to breastfeed their children to the recommended age of two years, complementary foods are introduced inappropriately and with insufficient dietary diversity.
The report called for expanded efforts to promote exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child's life and for education for families on how the best feeding practices. Additionally, routine food security and nutrition surveillance should be strengthened for early detection of fluctuations in nutrition, health and food security status.
It recommends that routine food security and nutrition surveillance be strengthened to allow early detection of changes in nutrition, health, and food security status. Such surveillance systems should be integrated into government structures.
Although Bangladesh has effective social safety nets in place, the new study suggested that they be widened and targeted towards areas where malnutrition and household food insecurity are most frequent.