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Threat of growing malnutrition in Pakistan

Two more agencies – the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Oxfam – have spoken about the situation in Pakistan six months after the floods.

According to UNICEF, levels of malnutrition among children in the province of Sindh are now almost as severe as in countries such as Chad and Niger. According to a survey conducted by UNICEF and the region’s authorities, over a fifth of young children in Sindh province are malnourished, with over 6 per cent acutely so in the northern area and 3 per cent in southern region. UNICEF’s chief of communications, Kristen Elsby, summarised the situation - “we are looking at hundreds of thousands of children at risk”.

Following the United Nations (UN) appeal for 2 billion dollars, only 56 per cent of this total was pledged by the international community. Oxfam’s recent report – ‘Six months into the floods’ – has warned that a lack of funding is putting huge numbers of people at risk, with aid delivered so far only “scratch[ing] the surface of human need”. Though Oxfam is currently helping up to 1.9 million people in Pakistan, according to the organisation this effort is dwarfed by the huge numbers still in need. In the second week of January alone, the agency reports there were more than 200,000 cases of chest infections such as pneumonia, due to lack of adequate shelter and warm clothing in the sub-zero winter temperatures. And like UNICEF, the organisation is extremely concerned about the high levels of malnutrition.

Rates were already high before the floods, with malnutrition thought to be the main cause of around half of infant and child deaths. And the battle to feed its people will only become harder as the country is projected to have a population of 191 million by 2015, up from the current 170 million. This would make Pakistan the sixth most populous nation in the world. One economic analyst, Sikander Lodhi, says simply “more people, of course, means a further drain on resources, [which] are already stretched to the limit”.

At the Family Planning Association of Pakistan, Rehana Nazeer explains “people believe large families mean more earning hands; but they do not realize they also mean more eating mouths”. Society is also extremely conservative and many men dislike the idea of contraception. However, some health agencies are trying to change attitudes, not only because of the increasing strain on resources of a growing population but also because women who have a high number of pregnancies are more likely to suffer health problems. The average fertility rate of women in Pakistan is currently 4.1 children, but some doctors and clinics are advising women to use contraception and keep to one or two children. However, it is a slow process to change attitudes and women will continue to be pressed into having large families.

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