Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado/IPS
Food Price Inflation Threatens Children
By Daniela Estrada*
Breast feeding, enriched foods and monitoring of children's growth are among the basic weapons for fighting a potential new wave of childhood malnutrition in Latin America, say experts.
SANTIAGO, May 12 (Tierramérica).- Child malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean will worsen because of global food shortages, even though the region produces much more food than it consumes, say experts and officials.
"In the eradication of childhood malnutrition the future of the countries is in play. The great drama is the pregnant mother and the child under age three. That is where all the efforts have to be. The rest is cosmetic," physician Eduardo Atalah, assistant director of the nutrition department at the University of Chile's medical school, told Tierramérica.
General malnutrition (underweight for one's age) and chronic malnutrition (under height for age) in particular leave irreversible physical and intellectual marks on children.
The rising prices of basic products like maize, wheat, rice and beans in some cases surpasses 100 percent and has turned into the worst food crisis in recent years for Latin America and the world, according to the World Food Program.
Seven percent of children under five suffer general malnutrition and 16 percent suffer chronic malnutrition, which is the equivalent of about nine million boys and girls in the region, according to studies from 2006. But those figures could worsen dramatically.
Chronic malnutrition is at the point of affecting 32 percent of children under five -- some 18 million -- while 50 percent of children two and under suffer anemia from lack of iron, according to the final declaration of the conference "Towards the Eradication of Childhood Malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean," held May 5-6 in Santiago, organized by the Chilean government and the WFP.
The experts agreed that fighting it requires a focused "multi-sectoral" approach: in addition to direct intervention in maternal-infant nutrition, there must be improvements in education, housing and potable water services.
Government response needs to be multifaceted, ranging from stimulus for production and transparency in the marketing of foods to establishing mechanisms of social protection, such as conditional cash transfers.
The experience of Chile, where the rate of chronic malnutrition is 1.3 percent, shows that it is possible to eradicate the problem with ongoing policies -- efforts that are not abandoned during political or economic crises.
The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has said that 10 to 15 million more Latin Americans could fall into poverty as a result of food prices inflation.
"It is likely that malnutrition will increase in those countries that lack strong social protection networks," Juan Rivera, of Mexico's National Public Health Institute, told Tierramérica.
Rivera was one of the three Latin American experts who participated in research on global childhood malnutrition, the results of which were published in the British medical journal "The Lancet".
In the study they identified three major interventions that were successful and relatively low cost. The first is the promotion of exclusively breast feeding until a newborn is six months old, and continuing as a nutritional complement until age one.
The second is the distribution of foods enriched with micronutrients -- like iron, zinc and folic acid -- to children ages six months to two years, and supplements with vitamin A and zinc in capsules.
Atalah says that indispensable programs are those that "monitor the growth and development of minors from gestation to age five." Public institutions should regularly weigh and measure children, evaluate their nutritional state and inform the mothers in order to generate changes.
Atalah is one of the authors of an ECLAC study on best practices in Latin American nutrition policies towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, presented at the Santiago conference.
The current food crisis is likely to undermine efforts to meeting the first of the eight goals established by the United Nations in 2000: cutting in half the number of people living in extreme poverty and suffering hunger by the year 2015.
The achievement of that goal supposes halving the proportion of children under five with general malnutrition, though because of its greater prevalence and seriousness, the countries of Latin America use chronic malnutrition as an indicator.
This is an ethical imperative for the region, given that its food production surpasses the calorie requirements of its total population by 30 percent. In addition, this year the region will have seen six consecutive years of economic growth, which has meant extraordinary wealth in several countries.
According to Atalah, most countries do not have updated, representative information to evaluate with certainty their progress towards reducing chronic malnutrition, though trends indicate that some may indeed achieve the goal. Guatemala has the worst rates, with malnutrition at about 50 percent.
Childhood malnutrition hurts national productivity because it generally means lower school attendance and a reduced workforce resulting from higher mortality rates -- and that's not accounting the additional health costs.
A study published by ECLAC and WFP last year revealed that in 2004 alone, childhood malnutrition cost the economies of Central America and the Dominican Republic 6.7 billion dollars, or 6.4 percent of their combined gross domestic product.
* Daniela Estrada is an IPS correspondent.