Inquirer Headlines: Nation

A World with Extreme Poverty is a World of Insecurity.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Poor families, poor nations

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE(The Manila Times Internet Edition)
July 31, 2007
By Marit Stinus-Remonde

Prosperous nations emanate from prosperous families, Cebu Sixth District Rep. Nerissa Soon-Ruiz said in her welcome remarks at the Philippine Population Association’s National Conference on Life Course Perspective on Population, Nutrition and Health held in Cebu City on July 28. A family’s ability to contribute to national progress, on the other hand, “depends on how well individual members have been nourished to their fullest potential.” So children “must be nourished, educated and nurtured so that they will become responsible members of society in the future. It is in the interest of both parents and society to raise children who are similarly committed to perpetuating themselves in a responsible and rewarding manner.”

Unfortunately, two in every three Filipino begins life as an anemic. Their mothers are anemic too. Micronutrient deficiencies in children are common, not even sparing the children of the better-off families. Children belonging to families in the highest income bracket were found to be iron and calcium deficient (2003). Dr. Corazon Barba of the Institute of Human Nutrition and Food, UP Los BaƱos, pointed out the stark irony that “coexistence of underweight child and overweight adult in same household” is a reality in 20.9 percent of households.

This shocking finding is related to another disturbing but not surprising finding that undernutrition at an early stage in one’s life significantly increases a person’s susceptibility to chronic diseases at a later stage in life. The situation is even worse for those who were underweight as children, and become overweight as adults. The ongoing “nutrition transition” from traditional foods to processed foods, which is happening in all sectors of society, is not resulting in improved diet. For instance, our “modern diet” contains more fat and more sugar than traditional diets. Consumption of fruits and vegetables is low, and level of income does not seem to be a significant factor.

Overweight, obesity, hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases have become common as society undergoes lifestyle and dietary changes. While overweight in itself increases risk of hypertension, Ms. Nanette Lee, senior research associate of the University of San Carlos Office of Population Studies, showed that staying overweight for a long time significantly increases risk of hypertension.

The scientific findings tell us that while indeed the country has made great progress in bringing down infant and under-5 mortality rates, and malnutrition, an unacceptable large number of our babies and children remain malnourished. In addition, these children have elevated risk of facing chronic health problems when they become adults. The negative factor of the current nutrition transition compounds the problem. Alarmed by these findings, Congresswoman Soon-Ruiz, herself a medical doctor, committed to sponsor needed legislation. The country has existing laws that mandate micronutrient fortification of certain foods, but obviously this isn’t enough.

Dr. Linda Adair of the Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, disclosed that a 2005 Metro Cebu survey showed that at age 2, 65.8 percent of females and 69.2 percent of males were stunted. At birth, 11.5 percent had low birth weight and 12.9 percent were preterm, indicating that malnutrition gets worse after birth. In other words, nutrition intervention cannot wait until school age where most government-assisted feeding programs appear to take place. The audience is captive in the school, but we need to address the problem much earlier, according to Dr. Barba. Occasional feeding of lugaw and sabaw will not suffice to reverse the impact of malnutrition. More radical and comprehensive efforts are needed.

The poor nutritional status of our babies and children will eventually become an economic burden to society. The mental capacity of malnourished children will never produce the scientists and entrepreneurs that the country needs in order to progress. Hypertension, diabetes, heart diseases and other chronic ailments affect productivity, and will put an increasingly heavy burden on a health sector already in crisis. The research studies presented at the conference give the hard facts and the inevitable conclusions. From there it is up to the policymakers whether or not to address the problem. Poverty is obviously the biggest factor in malnutrition, but ignorance, too, is greatly to blame for the sad state of health of the Filipino people. From poor and ignorant families emanate poor and ignorant nations.