Skyrocketing prices cause baby gloom

By Rohan Abeywardena

With essentials like rice, milk powder, vegetables, fish and meat increasingly going beyond the reach of many Sri Lankans, indications are already pointing to the country having acutely undernourished and wasted children.

The UNICEF office in Colombo is now gearing up to do a thorough study of the nutrition status here next month. Even the country’s staple food, rice, despite the price controls clamped on the commodity by the government recently, is selling on average nearly 80 per cent more than the prices recorded in 2007, according to the Weekly Food Commodities Bulletin published by the Agrarian Research and Training Institute.

UNICEF’s nutrition official Dr Renuka Jayatissa told the Sunday Times, the grave situation was already apparent from a just released report of a government study. The Demographic and Health Survey 2006/2007 has come up with some shocking findings.

President Rajapaksa’s home district of Hambantota is one of the worst affected. Nationally it is placed second with 20.9 percent of the district’s children being found to be acutely undernourished. The Tricomalee District is the worst affected district with 28.1 percent of its children being deemed acutely undernourished.

The other districts with sizeable percentages of children who are acutely undernourished are: Moneragala 19.8 percent, Batticaloa 19.4 per cent, Ampara 19.3 per cent, Polonnaruwa 17.9 per cent, Badulla 17.5 per cent, Matara 17.4, Anuradhapura 14.6 per cent and Galle 14.3 per cent.

Asked why districts like Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara registered such high rates of undernourishment despite there being a plethora of NGOs operating in the three districts, Dr Jayatissa said most of the NGOs were not involved in nutritional work and the high incidence was mainly the result of lots of people getting displaced due to fighting there in the last two years.

Though these shocking preliminary statistics have now been published on the Census and Statistics Department’s web site, they are couched in such technical jargon an average person may not be able to spot them. For example the acutely undernourished children are listed under the heading “below-2SD” and those who are severely undernourished are listed under “below-3SD”. And the country too has a share of severely undernourished children, with 6.8 percent of the babies below the age of six months nationally being in that category.

These figures have been arrived at after studying random sample groups of children in each district, but the UNICEF Nutrition official insisted that they were fully representative samples. Dr Jayatissa said the thorough nutritional survey would be conducted in August/September in collaboration with the World Food Prgramme and it would be reviewed every three months considering the situation in the country.
She said the problem now could be far worse and the children’s growth already affected with animal products, which provide protein and micro nutrients being very high in price. Plantation sector is considered one of the worst affected. In Nuwara Eliya alone 30 percent of the children are being born with low birth weight.

Fortunately UNICEF has already begun to reverse the sad situation in Batticaloa and Trincomalee as it had begun to observe the problem last year in the two districts. In Batticaloa, UNICEF had launched a Nutrition Rehabilitation Programme by distributing an imported high protein biscuit called BP100 among the severely malnourished through government health workers. Now government health staff is being trained in Trincomalee to launch a similar programme in the entire district from this month, Dr Jayatissa said.

Similarly, she said an Integrated Nutrition Package was being launched in the districts of Badulla, Moneragala and Nuwara Eliya, with the main focus being anemia control and improving feeding practices. It also covers a whole span from children under fiv to adolescents, pre-pregnant women, pre-natal women and lactating mothers.

Asked why they had not lined up similar projects in districts like Hambantota, the UNICEF official said no one had reported to them about the problem gripping Hambantota. And now that the Ministry of Health had requested help, the UNICEF needed three months to get down the required high protein biscuits.
Last year the UNICEF on observing wasting among children in Jaffna at about 30 per cent had reduced the problem to 11 per cent with the distribution of BP100, but the programme has been halted in the last three months due to the security situation, Dr Jayatissa lamented.

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