P328B cost of PH child malnutrition
Child malnutrition cost the Philippines P328 billion, about 3 percent of its gross domestic product, in one year in terms of education spending and lost productivity amid the rising hunger-related stunting, a global aid agency said on Tuesday.
The hardest hit area remains conflict-plagued Mindanao, where 40 percent of children are stunted—an average seen in sub-Saharan Africa, said Ned Olney, Save the Children Philippines country director.
In a report, “Cost of Hunger: Philippines,” Save the Children found that the combined losses, calculated with data from 2013, were more than triple the cost of damage inflicted by 15 natural disasters that hit the Philippines last year.
“Stunting costs are a drag on the economy and impacts all of us, not just the child and the family. It keeps the Filipino economy poorer by 3 percent. If you add that up over time—it’s an anchor to progress,” Olney said in Manila.
Stunting is defined as low height for age and is measured by comparing the height of a child against the international benchmark for a child of the same age.
Caused by a poor diet in a child’s first 1,000 days of life, stunting has severe, irreversible consequences on physical health and cognitive functioning.
One of those too small and thin for her age is 4-year-old Chanel of Navotas City. She frequently scratches her forehead, picking on rashes, scabs and her flaky dry skin.
Diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition, Chanel’s family fears that she won’t be able to make it past her fifth birthday.
Chanel is not the only one suffering from such condition in their community. Her two siblings and her playmates all have manifestations of malnutrition—they have poor hair and skin. Others have bloated stomach, decaying teeth and are too short, thin, even both, for their age.
The report, citing government data, said that after 25 years of steady improvement, the prevalence of stunting among Filipino children under 5 years old increased to 33 percent in 2015 from 30 percent in 2013.
“That’s a 10-percent increase in a two-year period, so that is devastating. We’re going in the wrong direction,” Olney said in a press conference launching the study.
Urban poverty and hunger are also worsening, Olney said. In the past, Save the Children had focused feeding programs on rural areas but this year started providing emergency food therapy for “starving, skeletal children” in urban areas.
Breaking down the lost income, Save the Children said a total of P166.5 billion was a result of lower level of education achieved by the working population, which suffered from childhood stunting; P160 billion lost due to premature deaths among children, who would have been members of the current working-age population; and P1.23 billion from additional education costs to cover grade repetitions linked to undernutrition.
The report said that of the estimated 49,000 students who had to repeat a grade level in school, 15 percent repeated as a result of under-5 stunting.
Olney said children, who were stunted in the first two years of life, were more likely to repeat grade levels, drop out of school and delay school entry.
“Save the Children is raising the alarm on the nutrition crisis, and is calling the national and local government, private sector and the donors to end the appalling state of malnutrition in the Philippines,” Olney said.
The study showed that an estimated 32.6 million Filipino members of the workforce had suffered from undernutrition before the age of 5.
“Filipinos, who were stunted before 5 years old, are more likely to earn less than those who are not stunted because of lower educational achievement and fewer work opportunities,” Olney said.
In addition, the study showed that 838,000 people, who would have been members of the work force, died due to childhood undernutrition.
“If not for the undernutrition-related child deaths, the Philippines would have boosted its productivity,” Olney said.
Poverty, access to food
But what caused the increase in stunting rates? “I think the easiest answer is that poverty rates also went up,” he said.
Olney noted that while the economy was humming along at 6-7 percent a year, “you have an increase in poverty from 24 to 25 percent of all families, and you haven’t addressed the issue of access to food.”
Chanel’s 26-year-old mother Desiree, who solely supports the family of five, admitted that Chanel, as well as her two siblings, suffered from stunting because they often did not prioritize food.
“Sometimes, we really have nothing and we can’t do anything about it,” said Desiree, who earns P100 a day as a food server in a canteen.
Desiree also linked her children’s poor health to her poor diet during pregnancy. “When I was pregnant, we had financial problems. I wasn’t able to eat regularly. Sometimes there’s really no food for a day,” she said.
Desiree said her husband, who used to work as a porter in a nearby fish market, had to stop working due to asthma and health complications.
Invest in nutrition
“If stunting rates continue to rise, it would be difficult for families to break free from poverty. It is the poor and neglected sectors of society that carry the burden of stunting. Any investment in reducing childhood undernutrition will reduce suffering and poverty, and will ultimately stimulate economic growth for all Filipinos,” Olney said.
The report found that Philippine investment in nutrition programs was very low at only 0.52 percent of general government expenditures compared with the global average allocation of 2.1 percent.
Citing the report’s findings, Save the Children highlighted the need to invest in nutrition programs during the child’s first 1,000 days, from pregnancy up to the second birthday, which is considered a critical period of care to avert stunting.
Olney urged the government to address issues such as water and sanitation, agriculture, education and investment in overall productivity.
“Malnutrition is seen as a disease burden to be handled by the Department of Health. We know that doesn’t work,” he said.
“That’s treating the sick child, rather than understanding why the child is malnourished. Countries that address poverty and access to food have made progress in reducing malnutrition.”
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