Child stunting from malnutrition could increase in Pacific in wake of Covid, experts warn

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

The loss of work and skyrocketing food prices, brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, could lead to an increase in child stunting in the Pacific, experts have warned.

A new report from World Vision, released today, found that 60% of people in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste having lost their job or main source of income due to the pandemic and that this had had a serious impact on the health of children.

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Many families have been unable to afford enough food as a result of lost income, with one in four families saying they had reduced the quantity or quality of their meals. Half of those surveyed say they are unable to meet household food expenses.

The report notes that the financial strain has had a significant impact on children, with 14% of families saying they have sent their children out to work or engaged family members in begging or high-risk jobs, to make up for lost income.

It warns that the lack of nutrition could lead to an increase in the rate of child stunting, caused by chronic undernutrition in children six months old and above, with 8% of children having two or less meals a day.

“There are interconnected issues, and the root causes of malnutrition could worsen if the pandemic and its impacts are not dealt with effectively,” said Evangelita Da Costa Pereira, a maternal health and nutrition specialist working for World Vision in Timor-Leste.

“Malnutrition, food insecurity and poverty are strongly linked with each other. When poorer households have less income to purchase a sufficiently diverse diet, children have poor nutritional intake and become malnourished.”

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In addition, the price of food has also skyrocketed, with a 30.6% increase in Vanuatu, a 17.7% increase in Timor-Leste, a 7.4% increase in Papua New Guinea and a 4.2% increase in Solomon Islands.

World Vision’s report also found that violence against children had increased during the pandemic. In the month preceding the data being collected, 80% of parents or caregivers used physical punishment and or psychological aggression against their children.

Vincent Jerry, from Rabaul in Papua New Guinea, had a job in the construction industry but lost his job three months ago, when Covid-19 forced the country into lockdown.

“I have been trying to find work ever since but there is nothing,” he said. “Everyone is in the same position. We are just so desperate.”

Jerry said the situation had become so dire that he had been unable to provide for his family.

“No money means no food. Sometimes we have two meals a day but most days it’s just dinner. I am scared for my two children, aged four and nine. I am scared of the impact this will have on them.”

Jerry said his brother currently loaned them 15 kina (AUD$5.70) a day, which buys them a kilo of rice, a few bananas and some sweet potato, but he’s not sure how much longer his brother can provide for them.

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Even before the pandemic, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea ranked third and fourth respectively for highest rate of child stunting in the world.

A 2017 analysis for Save the Children Australia identified malnutrition as the likely cause of up to 76% of total deaths of children under five across Papua New Guinea. There is no specific data on the causes of child deaths in Timor-Leste but Pereira said stunting was not just a risk to a child now but had lasting impacts.

“We know that stunting affects the brain development of the child, resulting in delayed physical and mental development, and poor learning capacity. Later, the child grows into an adult with poor productivity,” she said.

“So a child who is stunted is not only suffering the negative consequences now, but also in the future.”

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