Only a cohesive action plan can tackle the menacing epidemic of malnutrition and food insecurity in Pakistan

Only a cohesive action plan can tackle the menacing epidemic of malnutrition and food insecurity in Pakistan

Food insecurity is among the greatest challenges faced by Pakistan. According to estimates by Food Security and Nutrition Strategic Review, 18 percent of the population in Pakistan is severely undernourished. Almost half of the population of Pakistan, around 48.6 percent, doesn’t have access to sufficient food. Malnutrition has emerged as a menace especially affecting women and children under the age of five, and requires the immediate attention of the government.

The most common health-related co-morbidities of malnutrition are stunted growth and low IQ in children and anemia in children and women of child-bearing age. It is dismal to know the results of the National Nutrition Survey 2011, which revealed that 58 percent of households were food-insecure at the national level. Among these, 28.4 percent were food-insecure without hunger, 19.8 percent were food-insecure with moderate hunger and 9.8 percent were food-insecure with severe hunger.

Food security by definition implies not only the physical availability of food but also the socioeconomic access to nutritious food, as well as food absorption.

The 2011 National Nutrition survey concluded that around one third of Pakistani children were underweight and suffering from iron-deficiency anemia; 15 percent of children had severe malnutrition and wasting. After a lapse of seven years, in 2018 the Ministry of National Health Services, in collaboration with Aga Khan University and UNICEF, announced that a countrywide National Nutrition Survey would be conducted which will also highlight the country’s progress in terms of nutrition since 2011. Although it is sad to note that the survey presented a bleak picture of the core maternal and childhood indicators, it is hoped that the survey in 2018 will show a marked improvement.

It is dismal to know the results of the National Nutrition Survey 2011, which revealed that 58 percent of households were food-insecure at the national level. 

Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba

It is imperative to note that “poor nutrition in the crucial early years of a child’s life triggers irreversible mental and physical defects that have a lifelong impact on a child’s productivity, immunity against disease and earning capacity as an adult,” said Dr. Atif Habib, assistant professor, Pediatrics Unit, Aga Khan University.

In Pakistan disparities exist in terms of food security. According to a report published by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, FATA region has the highest population of food-insecure people (67.7 percent) followed closely by Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (61.2 and 56.2 percent respectively). Food insecurity, poverty and hunger can threaten the overall peace of the nation, leading to political instability, conflicts, and civil wars. Owing to the high economic cost of malnutrition, Pakistan is lagging behind China, India and Bangladesh, where stunting among children as a consequence of malnutrition has dropped significantly.

Pakistan Vision 2025 recognizes malnutrition as a problem and set a goal to improve nutritional status of the population for good health leading to an active and vibrant socioeconomic life and prosperity. To achieve this goal, Pakistan joined the global Scaling-Up Nutrition (SUN) movement in 2013 and adopted a multi-sectoral strategy. SUN is a renewed effort to eliminate all forms of malnutrition, based on the principle that everyone has a right to food and good nutrition.

However, international pledges alone cannot solve this problem. An evidence-based, holistic overview of the causes of this issue along with a comprehensive and coherent action plan at the federal as well as provincial level to develop a cohesive action plan will be the only way forward to alleviate this menace facing the poor people of this agricultural country.

– Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba is a freelance consultant working in the areas of environment and health.

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