In a survey conducted in 2008-2009, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme and the Institute of Public Health Nutrition, found that one in four households in Bangladesh was food insecure. This meant that around two million children aged between 6 months and 5 years were malnourished, a quarter of them acutely so. The nationwide survey was carried out during the harvest season, so the rates of malnutrition at other times of the year could be even higher.
Scarcity of food was one of the main causes for malnutrition in Bangladesh, with nearly half of the children in the 6 months to 5 years age group not receiving the minimum number of meals necessary for adequate nutrition. But the survey also identified another key problem. The food which the children received was lacking in enough diversity, providing less than four of the necessary food groups required each day. Since the early years are key for physical development, it is hardly surprising so many children were found to be suffering from acute malnutrition.
Bangladesh has set up a social safety net for the poorest families, but government schemes need to be expanded to cope with the size of the task. In the meanwhile, aid organisations have been trialling their own programmes to try and bring down the rates of malnutrition. One community-based pilot scheme has been organised by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the organisation hopes to examine the results in May next year.
Since May 2010, the scheme has involved sending out health workers to visit homes and identify malnourished children. These workers then act as health promoters by providing cooking demonstrations to groups of mothers. The cooking classes cover food hygiene and also show women new methods for preparing local foods so nutrients are not lost. One mother, Roxana Begun, was mostly feeding her son on Plumpy’nut paste and the child was suffering from severe malnutrition. After being shown how to prepare a more nutritious local lentil dish called ‘khichuri’, Roxana is hoping her son’s health will improve.
According to one of the doctors at MSF, a great deal can be achieved by trying to change the poor food habits of families. However, the organisation admits this won’t be the only solution to the problem. Food prices have risen steeply this year in Bangladesh and families are forced to survive on staples such as potatoes, lentils and rice, with meat or fish unaffordable. Bangladesh also lacks the specialist health facilities designed to treat cases of severe malnutrition. But if the nutrition project run by MSF brings even small improvements to the health of some of the half million acutely malnourished children in Bangladesh, then the programme will be judged a success and expanded.