Micronutrient deficiencies, especially the deficiency of zinc, has emerged as a major contributor to growing diarrhoea cases in Pakistan following the devastating floods in Sindh and Balochistan, where over half a million cases of water-borne diseases are being reported every month, resulting in hundreds of deaths, officials and experts said.
Despite being an agricultural country, malnutrition is rampant among women, children and adolescents. Stunting, wasting and micronutrient deficiencies have profound effects on the immunity, growth and mental development of children.
According to a study by the World Food Programme in 2017, malnutrition costs Pakistan $7.6 billion every year, which is three per cent of the GDP. Zinc deficiency is among the key factors contributing to severe malnutrition in Pakistan, according to officials and experts.
“Zinc deficiency results in a weak immune system, especially among children,” said Prof Jamal Raza, executive director of the Sindh Institute of Child Health & Neonatology Karachi.
“Nearly one out of every five children under five has inadequate intake of zinc in their diet. The deficiency of this important micronutrient is causing thousands of deaths due to diarrhoea, pneumonia and other preventable diseases every year.”
According to the National Institute of Health Islamabad, around 150,000 cases of acute watery diarrhoea are being reported every week in Pakistan following the 2022 floods in Sindh and Balochistan, and most of them are among children between the ages of six and 59 months.
“Zinc is important for immune function and our ability to fight infections, particularly pneumonia and diarrhoea. Zinc deficiency is common among children from low-income countries. Zinc is not stored in our bodies, so it must be consumed in our daily diet or from supplements,” said Prof Raza.
Symptoms of a zinc deficiency include a weakened immune system, which often results in recurrent infections, impaired wound healing, infertility and stunting in children.
Some studies suggest an association between low levels of zinc intake, and the risk of developing type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adults. Other experts say that zinc deficiencies are also associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.
“In Pakistan wheat is an important staple crop,” said Prof Imran Pasha, the director general of the National Institute of Food Science & Technology at the University of Agriculture Faisalabad.
“Biofortification of wheat is a viable and economical method to reduce zinc deficiencies and improve the bioavailable zinc in wheat grains. In Pakistan the agronomic biofortification approach has been successful in improving the grain zinc concentration, crop productivity and profitability.”
He said that agronomic zinc biofortification not only increases the grain zinc level but it also improves the net economic return with higher grain yield. Eating foods made from zinc-enriched wheat varieties is an easy, cost-effective and sustainable way to increase zinc intake in the diet.
According to Dr Yaqub Mujahid, country manager of HarvestPlus Pakistan, a large population of Pakistan is living under the poverty line. Poverty and malnutrition have a strong nexus especially affecting women and children in low- and middle-income countries like Pakistan.
“Building on our existing success we are now expanding the reach of nutritious crops to underprivileged populations, especially women and children. Our ‘Expanding Nutrients in the Food System’ project responds to the need for improvements in nutrition security and increases in women’s economic empowerment in vulnerable populations in Africa and Asia.
“Funded by the Government of Canada and led by HarvestPlus, the project equips smallholder farming families in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Uganda and Zimbabwe to grow, consume and market nutrient-enriched biofortified staple food crops, and facilitates improvements in women’s agronomic and entrepreneurial skills for improved livelihoods.
“Over four years the project aims to benefit 11 million men, women and girls, and children under five years old across the five countries.”