Pakistan is a developing country with the second highest infant and child mortality rate in the South Asia region. Malnutrition is a major cause for this mortality rate. Over the past few years, malnutrition has emerged as one of the world’s leading challenges with regard to food security and it should come as no surprise that Pakistan too is a victim of malnutrition, given the poor socioeconomic conditions of the country.

Malnutrition, simply put, is a condition in which the human body is deprived of all the necessary nutrients. This can only be addressed through a balanced diet. Diets in Pakistan are barely what can be classified as ‘balanced’. Pediatricians agree that infants from 6 months of age to 2 years in the country are not provided fortified food and this leads to malnutrition.

The nutritional status of children is a good indicator of the overall well-being of a society and reflects food security as well as existing health-care and environmental conditions. In Pakistan, it is estimated that nearly 40% to 50% of children under the age of 5 are stunted. Due to greater economic opportunities available to the urban population as compared to the rural, it is believed that better economic resources exist in poor urban Pakistani households but they lack the skills and knowledge to translate these resources into good care and feeding practices.

Although the struggle to tackle the issue of malnutrition among Pakistani children has been underway for many years, a realistic solution for this growing problem has not been found yet. In the interior parts of Pakistan, stunting is very common. Female illiteracy, poor household income and overcrowding are important risk factors in this regard. There is also a prevalent belief that in rural Pakistan, parents pay attention to feeding male children at the cost of female children.

It is appreciable that awareness exists in Pakistan at the policy-making level about malnutrition and the need for food fortification. A countrywide survey to collect information about malnutrition is also being undertaken through collaboration between the Ministry of National Health Services, the AKUH and UNICEF.

In 2011, it was found that more than half of all households in Pakistan suffer from food insecurity. It was pointed out that the indicators for mother and child nutrition had not improved. Dr Atif Habib, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health at AKUH, says that poor nutrition in the crucial early years of a child’s life triggers irreversible mental and physical defects that have a lifelong impact on the child’s productivity, immunity against disease and earning capacity as an adult.  He says that malnutrition also has a vicious, multi-generational impact since malnourished mothers are more likely to have underweight children. 

The first 6 months are considered to be a very crucial period in a child’s life. Therefore, if fortified foods are not given, the child’s growth falters. Doctors suggest that mothers should start giving small amounts of food as soon as the infant reaches the age of 6 months and increase the quantity gradually as the child gets older.

There is also a need to increase the consistency and variety of food. Maize, a highly profitable crop that has a yield two times higher than other cereal crops, is deficient in zinc, according to Dr. Tahir of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. Deficiency in the crop can be attributed to deficiencies in soil and hence, it becomes imperative that policies be put in place that support investment in fertilizers used to boost the crop.

Regulation of such policies will not just help Pakistan to turn over its current dreadful economic landscape, but will also help alleviate the epidemic of malnutrition that has been prevailing for decades and registers a surge every year. The good news is that malnutrition in children can be reversed through fortified foods which can be given to infants and children and the negative effects of malnutrition avoided. This serves to lay the foundations of a healthy nation that can face the growth challenges of the future with greater confidence.