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Expert calls for inter-ministry collaboration, community management to resolve malnourishment among children

Saras Ramiya
09 Jul 2018

Malaysia’s children are generally well fed but there are certain regions where their nutritional status can be further improved with inter-ministry collaboration and community management, says an expert.

The 2018 UNICEF Global Report on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) found that millions of children lack nutritious food for proper growth and development. Stunting and chronic malnutrition currently affects 155 million children; 52 million children suffer from wasting and 41 million children are overweight. The SDGs include health, education, poverty, water, hunger, violence and exploitation.

Although Malaysia is not too far off from meeting the SDGs, chronic malnutrition and inadequate nutrition do exist among Malaysian children—especially those with neurological disabilities—in certain areas of Kelantan, Terengganu, Sabah and Sarawak, said Professor Dr Zabidi Azhar Mohd Hussin, vice chancellor of Perdana University and paediatric neurologist, at the recent 24th Malaysian Dietitians’ Association National Conference 2018 in Kuala Lumpur.

Referring to a 2014 Masters’ thesis by one of his students, Nurul Hazirah Jaafar, Zabidi said that there were at least five-fold differences in underweight and stunting among healthy children versus children with disabilities (13 percent vs 55.4 percent and 13.4 percent vs 71.7 percent, respectively). Children with disabilities are clearly in a more disadvantaged position for various reasons including feeding problems and dysphagia, said Zabidi.

Compared with other ASEAN countries in terms of stunting, Malaysia is doing better than Indonesia (20.7 percent vs 36.4 percent); almost equal to Thailand (16.3 percent) but lags behind Singapore (4.4 percent). The trend is similar with regards to underweight and wasting. [WHO Global Health Observatory. Available at http://www.who.int/gho/en/]

Furthermore, there is the issue of inequalities in health showed by a study done in low-cost flats in Putrajaya. Geographical and socioeconomic differences as well as disabilities among the children were found to result in inequalities of healthcare. The health conditions of excluded and invisible children including Orang Asli, East Malaysia’s indigenous children, children with disabilities, and migrant and stateless children are just slightly better than Ghana, which is six times poorer than Malaysia. [Available at www.unicef.org/malaysia/]

“The issue of malnutrition and failure-to-thrive cannot be accepted in this country,” Zabidi emphasized.

Zabidi’s study in 2014 which used the Geoinformation System (GIS) to map malnourished children, rainfall distribution and other factors to observe their links to malnutrition, found malnourished children in the urban centre of Kelantan. The study led him to conclude that there is a need for multisectoral intervention in child health, especially nutrition.

According to Zabidi, childhood nutrition should involve the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, which registers disabled children; the Ministry of Health; the special education section of the Ministry of Education; Ministry of Rural and Regional Development for its role in irrigation and agriculture; Ministry of Housing and Local Government; Ministry of Science and Innovation for providing study grants, Ministry of Communication and Multimedia for producing campaigns on health and nutrition; Majlis Agama Islam, NGOs and universities.

In addition, he suggested that the government consider establishing the Ministry for Children’s Affairs solely to oversee improvements in the care of Malaysia’s children.

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