MANILA – More than 29,000 children are dying annually due to the high prevalence of undernutrition in the country, a UNICEF study has stated.
“This is about 38 percent of all deaths among Filipino children under five,” UNICEF Philippines nutrition specialist, Joris Van Hees, said during the launch of the Costing Study on Undernutrition, and the Philippine launch of the “2017 Global Nutrition Report” at the House of Representatives Tuesday.
The first study revealed that the Philippines loses approximately USD4.5 billion or PHP220 billion per year due to the effects of undernutrition, such as child stunting, anemia, and iodine deficiency. This is equivalent to 1.5 percent of the Philippine GDP in 2015.
Van Hees said that stunting alone contributes to more than 50 percent of the economic cost of undernutrition.
Stunting occurs very early in life or in the first 1,000 days from conception to two years due to lack of nutritious food, he said, noting that it not only results in children being too short for their age but could also result in damage to brain capacity.
Children need good nutrition and responsive care, including clean water and good sanitation, to have a normal growth, he said.
“It is important to emphasize that good nutrition starts with the mother. There is a very high return of investments and investing in nutrition is the best value for your money,” Van Hees said, pointing out that every dollar of intervention could save about USD12 in forgone earnings or health expenditures due to undernutrition.
Interventions, however, should target both mother and child, as well as women of reproductive age.
The study, “Economic Cost of Undernutrition in the Philippines”, was presented in collaboration with the Department of Health (DOH) and the National Nutrition Council, along with the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD).
The “2017 Global Nutrition Report” was launched to guide legislators in prioritizing investments for nutrition through the national budgeting process.
Rep. Jocelyn Limkaichong, vice chairperson of the House committee on ways and means and member of the committee on appropriations, said the situation “cannot remain unchanged”.
“Strategic investments and policies are needed if the country is serious about development. We must continuously work in the government to ensure sufficient and sustainable allocations for nutrition programs and policies, and never hesitate in investing in the health and nutrition of our country’s future: the children,” she said, calling on advocates to be proactive in defending the budget for nutrition.
Department of Social Welfare and Development Undersecretary Luzviminda Ilagan said that when she was a member of the House, she strongly advocated breastfeeding and authored the bill on longer maternity leave, which unfortunately was not passed into law.
Ilagan, however, said that she was happy that a similar bill had been filed.
“It is very important that we acknowledge the grim reality that the Philippines is one of the remaining countries left behind in terms of increasing the number of days for breastfeeding,” she said in her message of support.
“We are aware that there are serious challenges that we continue to face — logistics, budgetary concerns, even programs that must be carried out by agencies. They require convergence and massive budgetary and logistical support to enable us to overcome these obstacles,” Ilagan said.
However, leaders need to realize that a generation of anemic and malnourished children would affect the quality of the future generations, she said.
UNICEF Philippines Representative Lotta Sylwander said malnutrition robs children of their foundational health and fundamental right to survive, thrive and reach their full potential.
“If not addressed immediately, these children will remain as outliers in society, with poor performance in school and low productivity as adults in the future,” Sylwander warned. “Thus, if not mitigated, this situation perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Only healthy children can have the chance to succeed in life.”
DOH Assistant Secretary Bernie Flores, meanwhile, said the Philippines was already considered a trailblazer in nutrition policies in the international community.
“But we have much work to do since the situation of undernutrition among children is worsening: the Philippines is still one of the nine countries in the world with most cases of stunting, or too short for age, and wasting, or too thin for height, among children. So we encourage everyone to join us in the Scaling Up Nutrition movement of the Philippines,” Flores said.
In his closing remarks, PLCPD executive director Romeo Dongeto said mainstreaming nutrition in the development agenda is one of the best approaches that the government could adopt to accelerate economic and social progress and at the same time fulfill the people’s right to a happy and healthy life.
“This is why we in the civil society will never tire in pushing this government to consider all strategies that put people at the center when designing its development agenda. A stronger political will can transform our goals into sustainable action,” Dongeto said.