Children in half a dozen countries in the Middle East and North Africa have stunted growth problems resulting from malnutrition, a recent report by the United Nations’ children organization (UNICEF) found.
The UNICEF report indicates that more than half the children in both Afghanistan and Yemeni suffer from stunted growth, causing a vast array of problems and often perpetuating poverty.
59% of Afghanistan’s children were found to have a stunted growth rate, followed closely by 58% of the children in Yemen. Eritrea recorded a 44% stunted growth rate among its children, followed by 42% in Somalia, 40% in Sudan and 29% in Egypt.
Piyali Mustaphi, a UNICEF nutrition specialist for the Middle East and North Africa region, said it was worrying that Yemen, Sudan and Egypt all featured in the top 24 countries with the highest levels of stunted growth among children.
“Stunting is chronic malnutrition, which results in the diminished cognitive and physical development of a child, leading to poor performance in school,” she told The Media Line. “When the child becomes an adult, it might lead to low productivity of the person and ultimately leading to poverty. So it’s become a vicious cycle.”
“The main reason for stunted growth is poor infant and young child feeding practices, mainly at the household level, combined with illnesses and a poor status of women in the country and the household,” she added.
Mustaphi said that while stunting is impossible to reverse, governments can work to prevent it.
“Malnutrition shouldn’t just be tackled by the Ministry of Health or one U.N. agency,” she said. “It has to be tackled by inter-government ministries, who should realize that the issue has long-term effects for the country. One of our main challenges is bringing this to the forefront and getting good government commitment to reduce malnutrition.”
UNICEF officials say that the high levels of stunted growth in Yemen are a result of a combination of factors, including poor healthcare facilities, poor knowledge among women of the value of infant feeding and more recently a conflict on the northern border.
“Yemen has an area of conflict which is almost inaccessible,” Mustaphi said. “So malnutrition and stunting might be even higher in those areas,”
Children in the Palestinian territories featured surprisingly low in the international rankings, with a 10% prevalence of stunted growth, far better than some of the territories’ wealthier neighbors.
“This is an overall country average, but there are issues of disparity in Palestine, and we need to keep that in mind,” Mustaphi said. “Eight out of ten households in Gaza rely on food aid assistance from United Nations Relief and Works Agency or the World Food Programme. The other thing we need to remember is that presently it is 10% but stunting was as low as 7.6% in 1996, and it has now risen to 10% so there is an increase in stunting.”
Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency argued that a variety of factors, including psychological problems, affect the health situation of Palestinian children.
“If you’re looking at a child who is affected by a conflict or whose house is demolished, there are many other factors that have to be taken into account if you want to talk about the child’s health,” Gunness told the Media Line.