Nutrition standards worsening: UNICEF

Young children and women are suffering from worsening nutrition standards and associated disease and developmental harm, a new report on child nutrition by the United Nations has found. 

The report titled: “Fed to Fail?” highlights the international dietary crisis of early life and was released by the United Nations Children’s Fund (U.N.I.C.E.F.) last week. 

Malnutrition in Samoa was measured among women and children and expressed itself primarily through childhood obesity and anemia.

Some 53 per cent of school aged children (aged between 5 to 19) in Samoa are overweight, the report found. When the demographic is expanded to include malnutrition among women over the age of 18, the number of overweight people rises to 80 per cent.

The report also finds that rates of anemia (a condition where red blood cells and the ability for the body to deliver oxygen are both depleted) had also risen during the past decade, from 25 to 27 per cent. 

Overall, Samoa was not making progress towards its public policy goals relating to improving nutrition by 2030, the report found. The country's absence of any social protection programme aimed at specifically improving nutrition was also highlighted. 

The report was also released ahead of the United Nations Food Systems Summit this week.

The report warns that rising poverty, inequality, conflict, climate-related disasters, and health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, are contributing to an ongoing nutrition crisis among young children that shows no sign of slowing down. 

An insufficient intake of nutrients found in vegetables, fruits, eggs, fish and meat needed to support growth at an early age puts children at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, potentially, death.

Children under the age of two are most vulnerable to all forms of malnutrition – stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies, and overweight and obesity – as a result of poor diets, due to their greater need for essential nutrients per kilogram of body weight than at any other time in life.

Globally, U.N.I.C.E.F. estimates that more than half of children under the age of five with wasting – around 23 million children – are younger than two years of age, while the prevalence of stunting increases rapidly between six months and two years, as children’s diets fail to keep pace with their growing nutritional needs. 

But the Pacific region faces a triple burden as children experience not only stunting, but also micronutrient deficiencies and overweight or obesity. Stunting is reported to be very high in Solomon Islands and the Republic of Marshall Islands where almost one-third of children have stunted growth, followed by Nauru and Vanuatu with almost one-quarter of children suffering from stunted growth.

U.N.I.C.E.F.'s Executive Director, Henrietta Fore said that the report’s findings are clear: “When the stakes are highest, millions of young children are being fed to fail.”  

“Poor nutritional intake in the first two years of life can irreversibly harm children’s rapidly growing bodies and brains, impacting their schooling, job prospects and futures,” Ms. Fore said in a statement. 

“While we have known this for years, there has been little progress on providing the right kind of nutritious and safe foods for the young. In fact, the ongoing COVID-19 disruptions could make the situation much worse.”

According to the U.N.I.C.E.F. Pacific Representative, Jonathan Veitch, young children around the Pacific region are deprived of the diets they need at the time in their life when it matters most.”  

He added that as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate the difficulties that families face in feeding their young children, it is crucial that every possible action be taken to protect the diets of all children.

To deliver nutritious, safe, and affordable diets to every child, the report calls for governments, donors, civil society organizations and development actors to work hand-in-hand to transform food, health and social protection systems by leading key actions, including: increasing the availability and affordability of nutritious foods – including fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish meat and fortified foods – by incentivising their production, distribution and retailing.

And also, implementing national standards and legislation to protect young children from unhealthy processed and ultra-processed foods and beverages, and to end harmful marketing practices targeting children and families. 

Additionally, increasing the desirability of nutritious and safe foods through multiple communication channels including digital media to reach parents and children with easy to understand, coherent information.

In the Pacific, U.N.I.C.E.F. is working with governments and partners to address poor nutrition and health amongst young children through infant and young child feeding counselling, cooking demonstrations, and behaviour change communication targeting the first 1000 days in Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

For older children and adolescents, a children’s cooking show called Pacific Kids Food Revolution provides a platform for children to advocate on and support Pacific Island nations to overcome the triple burden of malnutrition. National legislation on breast milk substitutes and marketing of unhealthy food among children in Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are also being updated.

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