The youth of a country – frequently the largest part of the population – often fuels the engine of progress. According to the Pakistan National Census Report 2017, the highest percentage of Pakistan’s population is between the ages of 15 to 35. No doubt then, Pakistan’s youth is the force that can put the country on the road to success. However, the nation can only achieve success if the minds and bodies of our youth are in a position to work towards economic and intellectual progress. Currently, we know that malnutrition is one of the most pressing problems that Pakistan is facing; this is a challenge that could slow down our potential for growth.
UNDP Pakistan’ssecond National Human Development Report, ‘Unleashing The Potential Of A Young Pakistan’, focuses on the youth as a critical force for shaping human development. As mentioned above, Pakistan currently has the largest generation of young people ever in its history, with about two-thirds of the total population under 30 years of age. This includes children under 15 who will be tomorrow's youth. All this potential will go to waste if we do not start working on the problems that age group is facing. According to Dr Atif Habib, Assistant Professor Pediatrics and Child Health at Aga Khan University, “Malnutrition also has a vicious, multi-generational impact since malnourished mothers are more likely to have underweight children.”
According to a new official report, Pakistan loses US$7.6 billion or three per cent of its GDP each year due to malnutrition. ‘The Economic Consequences Of Under Nutrition In Pakistan: An Assessment Of Losses’,a report prepared by the Pakistan Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Secretariat, in collaboration with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), has used economic modeling to review 15 nutrition indicators from the 2011 National Nutrition Survey and the 2013 Pakistan Demographic Graphic Survey.
According to the report, more than 177,000 children die annually in Pakistan before their fifth birthday due to them or their mothers falling victim to malnutrition. This constitutes as future generations of workforce lost and costs Pakistan an estimatedUS$2.24 billion per year. It is an alarming sign that more than two-thirds of Pakistan’s children suffering from anaemia, iodine deficiencies or stunting will suffer deficits in mental and physical health, which results in lower school performance and lower productivity as adults. This impacts the GDP by a shocking US$3.7 billion annually. During his recent visit to Pakistan, the World Bank President said that Pakistan should address the high prevalence of stunting among its children on a priority basis.
UNICEF says in a report that Vitamin A could reduce child deaths by between a quarter and a third in many developing countries, saving between 1 and 3 million young lives a year. It could also save the eyesight of hundreds of thousands of children. Meanwhile, another micronutrient deficiency –the lack of iron– is affecting the development of half of those growing up in Africa and South Asia. Iron and Vitamin A are inexpensive and needed only in tiny amounts. The challenge is one of getting them to the millions who lack these micronutrients.
‘Food fortification’ refers to the addition of micronutrients to processed foods. In many situations, this strategy can lead to relatively rapid improvements in the micronutrient status of a population, and at a very reasonable cost, especially if advantage can be taken of existing technology and local distribution networks. Since the benefits are potentially significant, food fortification can be a very cost-effective public health intervention. However, an obvious requirement is that the fortified food needs to be consumed in adequate amounts by a significant proportion of the target individuals in a population. It is also necessary to have access to and to use fortificants that are well absorbed, yet do not affect the sensory properties of foods. In most cases, it is preferable to use centrally processed food vehicles and to have the support of the food industry. Fortification of food with micronutrients is a valid technology for reducing micronutrient malnutrition as part of a food-based approach when and where existing food supplies and limited access fail to provide adequate levels of the respective nutrients in the diet. In such cases, food fortification reinforces and supports ongoing nutrition improvement programmes and should be regarded as part of a broader, integrated approach.
Food fortification has a long history of use in industrialised countries for the successful control of deficiencies of Vitamins A and D, several B Vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin and niacin), iodine and iron. Fortification has become an increasingly attractive option in recent years, so much so that planned programmes have moved forward to the implementation phase more rapidly than previously thought possible. Given the success of the relatively long-running programme to fortify sugar with Vitamin A in Central America, where the prevalence of Vitamin A deficiency has been reduced considerably, similar initiatives are being attempted in other world regions. Currently, the first sugar fortification experience in sub-Saharan Africa is taking place in Zambia, and if successful will be emulated elsewhere. Darnton-Hill and Nalubola have identified at least 27 developing countries that could benefit from programmes to fortify one or more foods.
While it is unfortunate that Pakistan is not one of these 27 countries, if similar steps could be implemented here, we could go a long way towards tackling the scourge of malnutrition. It is only by arming our youth with basic mental and physical health and nutrition that we can prepare them to take Pakistan forward into the future. The need for this is very urgent; all parties need to play their role in creating awareness. With the upcoming 2018 General Elections, now is the time for political parties to make nutrition a part of their electoral commitments.
Already, most of the mainstream political parties have signed a commitment for the inclusion of nutrition requirements as part of their party manifestos for the elections,during a high level forum on ‘Food and Nutrition Security’, organised by HELVETAS Swiss Interco operation (HSI) in collaboration with Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Secretariat, Planning Commission Government of Pakistan. While this step shows that the political elite appears to have realised the scale of the epidemic, only time will tell if they are prepared to take the concrete steps needed to battle the danger of hidden hunger.
The author is former Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission of Pakistan..