World Bank: COVID-19 worsens child malnutrition, stunting in PH

Millions of Filipino children are at an increased risk of undernutrition unless the government takes “immediate” and “targeted” actions, such as providing more funds, to rapidly reduce childhood undernutrition, according to a recent World Bank report.

The World Bank’s Philippine Economic Update (PEU), released on Dec. 6, said that shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic have manifested themselves in child malnutrition and stunting, and reduced student learning, especially among the poor.

“If unmitigated, these shocks can have persistent impacts on people’s well-being and can damage their future productivity and earnings,” warned Ndiame Diop, World Bank country director for Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

He then underscored the need for the Philippine government to “maintain a sharp policy focus on health, education and agriculture to reduce the damage from the pandemic, especially among the poor and most vulnerable and to prevent temporary shocks to have long-lasting impacts.”

Diop said that while the government may be too focused on addressing high domestic inflation, which would result in slower economic growth in 2023, it should not miss other important facts, such as the worsening child malnutrition and stunting as well as significant learning losses among the poorest in the country.

Nutrition is a key component of human capital accumulation, which in turn is central to economic development, the multilateral funding agency’s report noted. In the Philippines, it said, “undernutrition robs children of their chance for a bright future and presents a significant challenge to continued economic growth.”

While noting a “modest improvement” in the prevalence of undernutrition in the country from 32% of children below 5 years old in 2008 to 29 % in 2019, the Philippines still ranked fifth among countries in the East Asia and Pacific region with the highest prevalence of stunting. It is also in the top 10 countries globally with the highest number of stunted children.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), stunting results from chronic undernutrition and indicates a failure to attain the height expected for a healthy child. Height growth and brain development not achieved during the first 1,000 days of life, from the time of conception up to the child’s first two years, is largely irrecoverable and has been associated with measurable negative consequences for health, impaired cognitive development, reduced earnings in adulthood, and increased risk of developing chronic diseases.

To illustrate the gravity of the problem, UNICEF estimated the economic burden associated with undernutrition in the Philippines at $4.4 billion seven years ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated the country’s high level of stunting as it disrupted the supply of nutritious foods, access to essential health and nutrition services, and the livelihoods of wage warning and subsistence farming households.

The ongoing war in Ukraine is seen to further worsen the food and nutrition security of vulnerable Filipino families as food prices keep on rising since the second half of 2020, reaching an all-time high in February 2022 and are leading to food security crises around the world.

“These unfortunate events indicate that unless immediate and targeted action is taken, millions of Filipino children are at increased risk of undernutrition, which in turn would increase the likelihood of them performing worse at school and achieve lower productivity as adults,” the World Bank report said.

To rapidly reduce childhood undernutrition, the report recommends the adoption of policies and implementation of programs such as ensuring adequate finding for nutrition, implementing large-scale, evidence-based nutrition-specific interventions to households in high-priority local government units, and the creation of a strong and closely coordinated partnerships for nutrition.

The proposed package of nutrition-specific interventions include pre-conceptual folic acid or fortification, maternal calcium supplementation, maternal protein energy supplementation, breastfeeding promotion, vitamin A supplementation for children 6 to 59 months, complementary feeding education and food provision for food-insecure households, preventive zinc supplementation, management of moderate acute malnutrition and treatment of severe acute malnutrition, and therapeutic zinc supplementation during treatment of diarrhea. It said the package has been found to promote a healthier society and a more robust economy, if delivered in full and at 90 percent coverage.

At a national nutrition summit in 2019, the Department of Science and Technology recognized that the government has to double the efforts to address the nutrition problems besetting the country to meet the 2022 Philippine Plan of Action for Nutrition target of 21.4% reduction in stunting and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals target of zero malnutrition. With the COVID-19 pandemic worsening the situation, quadruple efforts may be required to catch up.


The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.
This column also appeared in The Manila Times.