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February 7, 2020

President Arif Alvi says time is short; quick action needed to overcome malnutrition


February 7, 2020

Islamabad : Alarmed by data reflecting the triple burden of malnutrition in Pakistan, President Arif Alvi Thursday emphasised that “it’s time to walk the talk, and to do something rather than talking only.” He feared that with the current sluggish pace, it may take another 60 years for the country to tackle the malnutrition emergency, making it essential to urgently define and meticulously follow deadlines, and to act quickly.

Speaking as chief guest at the opening of a two-day National Nutrition Conference arranged to step up action on malnutrition, Dr. Alvi said, “When I used to visit our neighboring poverty-stricken countries, I believed nobody in Pakistan dies of hunger, but the situation is otherwise.” He underscored the need to learn lessons from both success stories and failures. The president was awed by the fact that a majority of our population suffers from Vitamin D deficiency even though there is plenty of sunlight throughout the year.

President Alvi lamented the popularisation of unnatural formula milk as a substitute for breastmilk, and urged the Ministry of National Health Services to monitor the aggressive marking of breastmilk substitutes. “Breastfeeding is the best way to tackle childhood malnutrition and birth-spacing, he said, quoting the Quran which also emphasises continuation of breastfeeding until 24 months and empowers both parents to consult each other in case the mother wants to discontinue with the practice. The president also stressed to promote consumption of locally available diverse and nutritious foods. Highlighting the media’s role, President Alvi asserted that messages about health and diet should be disseminated in dramas and other popular programmes to raise public awareness.

The conference has been arranged by Nutrition International, Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Secretariat and the SUN Civil Society Alliance, and the Ministry of Planning Development and Special Initiative. With only 10 years left to reach global targets, including the Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger, the conference will serve as a platform to build strategies and to fast-track implementation of maternal, child and adolescent nutrition strategies and programmes.

The event was organised in response to the alarming results of the government’s most recent nutrition survey. According to National Nutrition Survey 2018, Pakistan is facing the triple burden of malnutrition, with high rates of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and increasing prevalence of obesity. Women, adolescents and children are most affected. The survey found 40.2% of children under five years of age are stunted, while 17.7% suffer from wasting. The double burden of malnutrition is apparent, with 28.9% of children underweight and 9.5% overweight. Despite marginal improvement from 2011, when the prevalence of stunting was 43.7%, it remains at a critical level. Experts believe that this change can be attributed to population increase, and there has actually been very little improvement. Women aged 15-49 years of age are also facing the triple burden of malnutrition: 14% are undernourished, 28% are overweight and 38% are obese, a number that is reported to be increasing. Almost 42% of women and 57% of adolescent girls are anaemic.

Secretary Health Dr. Allah Baksh outlined the actions that the government has taken to address the situation, including the National Health Vision 2016-2025, which aims to achieve universal health coverage through a resilient and responsive health system, and realize the SDGs and other commitments. To fulfill that vision, many crucial policy and guidance documents have been developed at the federal level, such as the Infant and Young Child Feeding Strategy 2016-2020, the adolescent nutrition strategy, the nationwide Vitamin A supplementation programme, and the national food fortification programme. A multi-billion rupee nutrition programme is also being finalised, which will be implemented at the provincial level.

Canadian High Commissioner Wendy Gilmore said, “Canada is proud to support Pakistan’s efforts on addressing malnutrition issues through Nutrition International. Nutrition requires a comprehensive approach, with the empowerment of women and girls at its core, as it impacts health, education, and economic development outcomes.”

The Country Director for Nutrition International Dr. Shabina Raza hoped that the ‘Improved Nutrition – Secure Future’ conference would help stakeholders to take stock of the malnutrition situation at the national and provincial levels and identify opportunities for action. “The conference will help us understand clear pathways for multisectoral integration and develop actionable plans, using existing coordination mechanisms for accelerating improvement in nutrition.”

During the first day’s technical session, leading global and national experts, including Dr. Zulfiqar A. Bhutta and Dr. Rubina Sohail shared recommendations for improving maternal and child nutrition in Pakistan. The session was chaired by Professor Dr. Mehr Taj Roghani, a senior parliamentarian, and co-chaired by Dr. Nosheen Hamid, Parliamentary Secretary for Health.

On the second day of the conference, sectoral specialists from health, agriculture, social protection, education and other relevant sectors will share their recommendations to leverage existing investments in development projects. Messages from Joel Spicer, President and CEO of Nutrition International, and Gerda Verburg, Global Coordinator for the SUN Movement, were screened, showing their support and congratulating the government on its leadership.

The first day concluded with a Tehrik-e-Niswan theatrical performance demonstrating the first 1,000 days of life.

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