The impact of natural calamities on malnutrition is undeniably devastating, with a global increase in hunger, inadequate access to nutritious food, and rising levels of food insecurity.
The Covid-19 pandemic worsened the global nutrition crisis, affecting various forms of malnutrition such as iron-deficient anemia, hunger, obesity, etc. The Global Nutrition Report 2022 highlights a significant rise in hunger, impacting 768 million people in 2021, up from 618 million in 2019.
At least 3.1 billion individuals were unable to afford a nutritious diet in 2020, marking an increase of 112 million. And around 2.3 billion people, equivalent to 29.3 per cent of the global population, experienced moderate to severe food insecurity.
Pakistan has also been heavily impacted by Covid-19, which exacerbated the existing malnutrition challenges and introduced new ones that particularly affect vulnerable groups. Disrupted livelihoods and economic activities have led to increased food insecurity, job losses and reduced income, making it difficult for individuals and households to afford adequate and nutritious meals.
The 2022 devastating floods in Pakistan too resulted in a sharp rise in severe acute malnutrition and iron deficiency among children in affected areas. Over one in nine children under the age of five admitted to health facilities in flood-affected regions of Sindh and Balochistan have been diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition.
It is estimated that approximately 1.6 million children in these areas require urgent treatment for this severe condition. Addressing this nutrition emergency, along with persistent issues of stunting and iron-deficient anemia among children and mothers, is crucial for enhancing the overall nutritional well-being of the population.
The UN has reported a significant increase in undernourished children in flood-affected areas. Even before the floods, malnutrition was already a prevalent issue, with approximately one-third of children aged six to 23 months experiencing moderate acute malnutrition and 14 per cent of infants facing acute severe malnutrition, which can be fatal.
Amid these natural calamities, disruptions in food supply chains – resulting from lockdowns, movement restrictions, and transportation disturbances – have affected the availability and accessibility of nutritious food. Vulnerable groups and marginalized communities have been disproportionately impacted. Limited access to essential healthcare services, particularly for maternal and child health, has hindered the prevention and treatment of malnutrition, especially among women and children.
School closures have also had a detrimental effect on nutrition programmes, such as school feeding initiatives, which serve as vital sources of nutrition for vulnerable children. The suspension of these programmes has deprived many children of essential nutrients, worsening the malnutrition situation. Additionally, ongoing nutritional interventions, including micronutrient supplementation and breastfeeding support services, have been disrupted, leading to a decrease in the delivery of crucial nutrients and support for mothers and children.
UN officials describe the situation in Sindh and Balochistan as reaching “emergency levels”, intensifying the already high rates of child wasting and iron deficiency. Prior to the floods, Pakistan was already struggling to combat child malnutrition, with approximately 10 million children affected by stunting and half of under-five children (49.1 per cent) suffering from iron deficiency anemia, as highlighted by the National Nutrition Survey.
Urgent action is required from the government to address the nutritional needs of vulnerable children, as the health consequences of malnutrition may have irreversible effects. While the UN has allocated $5.5 million for food security interventions, additional funding is necessary. Despite economic challenges and global instability impacting donor contributions, funds should be reallocated from non-essential areas to ensure sufficient food for children to cover micronutrient deficiencies and adults in flood-affected regions.
To effectively tackle the compounding impact of Covid-19 and recent floods on malnutrition in Pakistan, it is crucial to implement comprehensive measures specifically aimed at fortifying food for early childhood nutrition.
Fortification can play a significant role in improving the overall nutritional wellbeing of the targeted population, bridging micronutrient gaps and deficiencies among vulnerable groups such as women and children.
It offers numerous benefits, including cost-effectiveness and wide coverage, reaching remote and underserved areas by fortifying widely consumed staple foods like milk and dairy products, wheat flour, and edible oil. By leveraging existing food consumption patterns, fortification provides a practical and sustainable approach to improving nutrition.
It is imperative for both the government and policymakers to set aside internal power struggles to prioritize the national agenda in addressing child malnutrition and fortification of food for all ages. They must devise a long-term plan to tackle this issue, granting the younger generation a chance at a better future. Also, amid the numerous crises, the overall health, education, and rehabilitation needs of flood victims should not be overlooked.
The writer is a graduate fellow in Health Policy and Leadership at the
University of San Francisco, California USA. She can be reached at:
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