by Phuong Ngo
COLOMBO — A war against nutrition was re-raged by international health officials yesterday in Colombo, Srilanka amidst growing concern over the losing public interest on both underweight and overweight people– a double burden to most countries across the globe.
Nutritional risk factors are responsible for 3.9 million deaths globally in children under the age of 5 each year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) – the key host to the three-day Bi-regional Meeting on Scaling up Nutrition.
The meeting, gathered health experts and policy-makers from 19 WHO State members of both South East Asia and Western Pacific regions, aims to reverse the rising trend in nutrition-related problems – which the host said would result in "dire social and economic consequences," if failed to address.
Health officials have shown their worries over slow progress among nations in tackling nutrition-related health problems though the 63th World Health Assembly. The assembly urged countries to increase political commitment for prevention and control of all forms of malnutrition last year.
Dr Francesco Branco, Geneva-based WHO's director of Department of Nutrition for Health and Development attributed the slow progress to the lack of attention to the health sector, a gap in financial investment and the rapid change of the food system which does not always support the good nutrition.
About 70 million children in Asia are estimated to be underweight, mostly due to a shortage of food and poor feeding practices. Undernutrition, which experts say impairs healthy development and life-long productivity, can be reduced through simple actions such as exclusive breeding until six months and regular intake of iron and folic acid among women of reproductive age.
"Poverty leads to malnutrition, which in turn creates sickness and perpetuates poverty. It's a vicious cycle – and the time has come to break it," said Dr Shin Young-zoo, WHO Regional director Western Pacific Region.
By contrast, due to changes in lifestyle, nearly 43 million children under 5 were overweight throughout the world in 2010 and 35 million of them are living in developing countries. Overweight and obesity, largely caused by unhealthy food intake and physical inactivity, are the fifth leading risk for global deaths. They are direct causes to noncommunicable diseases, notably heart disease and strokes, diabetes and some cancers.
Overnutrtion is also easily preventable by balancing the consumption of various types of food and engaging in physical activity.
But this demands responsibility on the part of managers of food industry, too, to ensure that healthy and nutritious choices are available and affordable to all consumers, according to health experts at the meeting.
Dr Samlee Plianbangchang, Regional Director of WHO South East Asia urged nations to incorporate nutrition into their national policies and place a greater effort on nutrition education to change public behaviours and knowledge in food consumption.
"KAP (Knowledge – Attitude – Practice) is a basic principle to the nutrition problems," he said.
Nguyen Duc Vinh, deputy director of Health Ministry's Mother and Child Health Department told the meeting that Viet Nam had made progresses on prevention of malnutrition over the past years, with the rate of underweight children under the age of five brought down from 33.8 per cent in 2001 to 17.5 per cent in 2010.
However, the stunting rate remains high, at 29.3 per cent, or one in three children under five years of age.
Like other developing countries, Viet Nam is facing the problem of overweight during the nutrition transition.
Almost of five per cent of children under five are reported to be obese, but health experts warn the rate would rise rapidly soon.
"But the most critical challenge to Viet Nam is how to narrow the disparity among regions, because nutrition is largely connected to socio-economic situation," said Vinh.
He cited an example that while malnutrition was around 20 per cent among children under five nation-wide, it was double in some mountainous provinces, including Kon Tum in the Central Highlands.
"Another priority for Viet Nam now is to reduce the stunting rate among children," he said, adding that it required concerted effort from various sectors rather than health ministry alone.
"For example, the agriculture ministry should be responsible for ensuring food security and supplying food to residents in emergency cases, while the education ministry needs to strengthen the nutrition-related programmes to school children."— VNS