Childhood stunting

July 25, 2019

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IN his inaugural address to the nation, Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke about Pakistan’s appalling rates of stunting, apparently the third highest in the world. Stunting is a lifelong impairment which cannot be reversed; it increases the risk of contracting non-infectious chronic diseases in children. During that speech, Mr Khan held out X-ray scans of the brain of a stunted child next to that of a healthy one, showing the visible difference in size between the two. The contrasting images underscored that stunting is not only a physical impairment, it is an intellectual one as well, with grave consequences for the nation’s future. There are several reasons for the prevalence of stunting in our region, and all are linked to the high rates of poverty, the lack of access to proper healthcare and poor hygiene practices in the general population, and the secondary status of women in society. Stunting is caused when children do not have access to a nutritious diet in the first two years of life; when mothers are malnourished before and during pregnancy; when proper sanitary precautions are not practised within the household; and because of inadequate psychosocial stimulation. While it was encouraging then to see the prime minister put a large-scale but largely ignored health concern at the top of his agenda when he came into power, it seems to have since fallen out of the list of priorities.

Now, the government and Unicef have come out with the National Nutrition Survey 2018, which sheds some light on the topic. According to the report, the highest rates of stunting occur in KP (merged with tribal areas), with 48.3pc of children under the age of five suffering from the condition. Second worst were Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan (46.6pc each), followed by Sindh (45.5pc). In Azad Kashmir and Punjab, the rate of stunting stood at 39.3pc and 36.4pc respectively. Meanwhile, Islamabad had the lowest at 32.6pc. Sadly, even at its lowest, the figure is far too high.

Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2019