Malnutrition a major barrier to economic success in Asia

Published on 15 September 2004

New Delhi - The Asia region must take decisive steps to reduce malnutrition or face losing much of its tremendous economic potential, a top WFP official said at the opening of a regional conference on maternal and child malnutrition in India.

MALNUTRITION A MAJOR BARRIER TO ECONOMIC SUCCESS IN ASIA, TOP WFP OFFICIAL SAYS

NEW DELHI - The Asia region must take decisive steps to reduce malnutrition or face losing much of its tremendous economic potential, a top official of the United Nations World Food Programme said here today at the opening of a regional conference on maternal and child malnutrition.

The catastrophic malnutrition levels in Asia are the single greatest barrier to the evolution of a modern, knowledge-based work force that can manage the economic powerhouse Asia has the promise to become, said Sheila Sisulu, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme.

"Malnutrition will be a millstone around the neck of the countries in their progress toward economic prosperity," said Sisulu, who is conducting a visit to four countries in Asia. "It is vital for everyone to play their part in making sure women and children, particularly adolescent girls, get proper nourishment."

WFP and the Government of India are co-hosting the conference, officially titled the Regional Ministerial Consultation on Maternal and Child Nutrition in Asian Countries. The three-day event focuses on food and nutrition as a top priority in government poverty-reduction strategies.

Sisulu explained that a mother who is weakened by iron and vitamin A deficiency cannot give her children the upbringing they need to complete their education and achieve their full social and economic potential. As the primary caregiver of the family, a mother needs essential micronutrients in order to do her job well.

It is also crucial for infants and young children to get good nutrition at this vital stage of their development, Sisulu said, pointing out that malnutrition in early childhood undermines children's physical stature and cognitive abilities, and impedes their performance in school.

Adolescent girls are also significant in the nutritional framework, Sisulu said, stressing that if girls are deprived of nourishment they give birth to underweight babies, who then continue the insidious cycle of malnutrition into the next generation. "Adolescent girls are the vital link in the chain to the future of Asia," declared Sisulu.

She noted that fortified foods can be made available at affordable prices for the poor, like Indiamix, the low-cost blended infant food pioneered in India by WFP. She urged countries with a nutrition crisis to increase the fortification of staple foodstuffs lacking micronutrients, so that the poor get the necessary vitamins and minerals.

The greatest number of hungry people in the world live in Asia, according to UN statistics -- more than 500 million people do not get enough food to meet the daily needs for nutritional well-being. Micronutrient deficiencies are especially serious in Asia: babies are born mentally retarded as a result of iodine deficiency, children go blind and die of Vitamin A deficiency, and enormous numbers of women and children are sapped by iron deficiency anemia.

At the same time, studies by the World Bank show that productivity losses due to various types of malnutrition in low-income Asian countries constitute about two to three percent of the Gross National Product (and eight percent in Bangladesh). The studies also show that the benefits of reducing iron deficiency are in the range of US$40-50 per person - and $82-140 per pregnant woman - annually.

The situation is even more bleak in light of the HIV and AIDS pandemic, Sisulu said. Asia is facing an exploding HIV/AIDS epidemic, with a total of 7.4 million people living with HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific. Malnutrition is thought to hasten disease progression and death and render less efficacious the treatment of HIV with anti-retroviral drugs.

Sisulu emphasised that fighting AIDS and fighting hunger must go hand in hand, with Governments paying attention not only to food supply but to a nutrition regime which would include sufficient energy, protein and micronutrients.

The nutrition conference, which was organized by the WFP Regional Bureau for Asia, is intended to produce a joint statement by the heads of the delegations from more than 15 countries in Asia on the importance of food and nutrition in reducing poverty.

WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency: in 2003 we gave food aid to a record 104 million people in 81 countries, including 56 million hungry children.

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