Small children a big problem

November 15, 2009
A mother breastfeeds her baby in Hanoi.

Vietnam is among the 24 countries with the largest numbers of children under five years old who suffer from stunted growth.

This “surprising” finding is made by the recently released UNICEF report titled Tracking Progress on Child and Maternal Development.

Approximately 200 million children under the age of five in the developing world suffer from stunted growth as a result of chronic maternal and childhood under-nutrition, a UNICEF press release cites the report as saying.

More than 90 percent of the developing world’s stunted children live in Africa and Asia, the report says.

Among countries which have the largest numbers of stunted children, Vietnam is ranked 13th and India tops the list.

Over two million children are stunted in Vietnam, UNICEF Vietnam reported.

“It may indeed come as a surprise that Vietnam is included in this list with largest numbers of children who are stunted, meaning that they do not grow to their full potential,” said Dr. Marjatta Tolvanen-Ojutkangas, Chief of Child Survival and Development of UNICEF Vietnam.

With the report stating that stunting is associated with developmental problems and often impossible to correct, the poor growth of children need to be taken seriously, Tolvanen-Ojutkangas told Thanh Nien Weekly.

“It can be considered as a wake-up call in the sense that we often tend to just think that one child is smaller than the other and that is no problem – for indeed, it is a problem – Vietnamese children are not ‘just small as they usually are’ – they have potential to grow taller,” she said.

She cited studies of children of Vietnamese parents living in France – they are growing taller than the children in Vietnam.

“We need to sharpen our vision: often when I ask the age of a child, I think that she or he is 10 years old, but the real age can be 12-14.”

But on the bright side, the report also said Vietnam has a significant decline in stunting rate, reduced from 57 percent in 1987 to 36 percent in 2006. Vietnam is also among the five countries which have the greatest reduction in underweight prevalence.

Not just lack of food

Tolvanen-Ojutkangas noted a majority of stunted Vietnamese children are in the rural and mountainous areas, stressing that the problem was rooted in poverty.

But the lack of food would not be the only rationale for this, she said.

“We need to pay attention to the care of women and mothers and improve the living environment and improve childcare and feeding practices.”

Poor hygiene and sanitation as well as poor breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices are also factors in stunted growth among children, she said.

“Unclean environment is a cause of many diarrheal diseases and pneumonia episodes, and they all cause a loss of nutrients and contribute to poor growth during the first years of life.”

Insufficient exclusive breast-feeding was also another major factor, Tolvanen-Ojutkangas said.

“Bottle feeding has increased tremendously in Vietnam, which means that the natural immunity that the child would get from mother’s milk is lost, exposing the child to attacks of bacteria and viruses.”

A UNICEF study in 2006 found only one out of every six mothers exclusively breastfed their babies. The figure included women who stored milk for use in bottles as exclusive breast-feeders.

Tolvanen-Ojutkangas said providing mothers with needed information and protecting them from false advertising was a vital task.

Stunted growth is also an issue that needs attention of the whole family and the husbands should be encouraged to take good care of the wife who plans to become pregnant, she added.

“It is therefore advisable that the mother-to-be will not do the hardest work during that time, but be allowed to concentrate on ensuring that the next generation is looked after best possible way.”

Treating undernourishment among Vietnamese children begins with the mother

Reported by An Dien

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