Wed, 24 Mar 1999

Malnutrition in RI may devastate a generation

JAKARTA (JP): The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) reiterated its warning on Tuesday of the danger of a mentally deficient generation caused by malnutrition currently affecting infants and pregnant women as a result of the unabated economic crisis.

"For every child that dies due to severe malnutrition, there are nine who die due to the mild or moderate 'unseen' forms," Stephen J. Woodhouse, Unicef area representative for Indonesia and Malaysia, said. He said eight million pre-school age children here were malnourished and 12 million were suffering from vitamin A, iron and protein deficiencies before the crisis. He added current figures could be more than this.

These and other vitamins and minerals are essential for children to resist infection and develop healthy bodies and normal intelligence.

"Malnutrition in the first two years of life is devastating because 90 percent of brain cells develop during the period," Woodhouse said.

"Without adequate nutrition, IQ will not develop normally, concentration ability in school suffers, (the likelihood of) illness and death increase... The nation as a whole cannot afford this massive loss of human potential which, among other things, will condemn Indonesia to lower economic growth and competitiveness in the global economy."

He cited the Ministry of Health which has reported at least 610 deaths due to marasmus and kwashiorkor in recent months, and 170,000 of the total 300,000 pre-school children died each year from malnutrition. He did not mention the time period.

A recent survey conducted by the country branch of the Hellen Keller International organization in Java showed that up to 5.5 million women on the densely populated island suffer from undernourishment. The figures from Central Java showed that women lost an average of one kilogram of weight from 1997 to 1998.

The study also revealed that the number of women suffering from myopia caused by an insufficient intake of vitamin A doubled from approximately 75,000 to 150,000. In Jakarta the percentage of women suffering from vitamin A deficiencies is twice as high as in rural Bangladesh.

Woodhouse said the greatest effect of the crisis is the drop in real incomes, which forces families to cut their spending on animal products such as meat, fish, eggs and milk.

Surprisingly, the sharp decrease in the consumption of necessary nutritious food was not matched by a drop in spending on cigarettes.

"Based on the study, poor people, especially men, spend more to buy cigarettes rather than eggs for their families," Woodhouse said, adding that this unnecessary spending made the situation worse for women and children.

In response to the worsening nutritional intake of Indonesians, Unicef plans to distribute nine million packages of food supplements through 11,000 integrated health service posts, in 2,500 villages in 325 regencies here, hoping to benefit 375,000 children.

"Each package is actually worth Rp 4,000, but we sell them for Rp 500 each, because we want the parents to be responsible for their children... we're not giving it for free," Woodhouse added.

Meanwhile in Padang, West Sumatra, at least 18 children aged under five have died so far due to severe malnutrition, and 110 others are receiving intensive medical treatment.

"We estimate at least 1,700 children under five are undernourished and could suffer from marasmus any time," Rasyidah Rasyid, head of the West Sumatra health office, told The Jakarta Post.

Rasyidah also complained about obstacles to distributing the extra food to babies and pregnant women in the area, where each person was to receive an allowance of Rp 750 per day.

"Not all of the needy people receive the allowance, because of certain parties who manipulate the data from the field," Rasyidah said, adding that poor families here were eating only rice porridge.

In Semarang, Central Java, the Ministry of Health data from last October to February listed 61 children aged under five suffering from malnutrition, some of them were being treated in hospitals. The children were found in 18 regencies in Central Java, office chief Soejono Hardjosoedarmo said.

Antara reported Tuesday that State Minister of Population and head of the National Family Planning Coordinating Board Ida Bagus Oka has ordered all trainers at health community centers to be active in helping mothers and undernourished children. (edt/har/28)