Health data available from the World Health Organisation (WHO) puts the rate of stunting among under-fives in Swaziland at 31% in the period 2005–2012. However, a recent survey led by the country’s Ministry of Health indicates the actual figure for undernutrition in young children could be much higher.
In a new report on Swaziland by the Cost of Hunger in Africa (COHA) partnership, an African Union Commission-led initiative, levels of stunting among young children were found to be around 10% higher than in previous Ministry of Health surveys, at over 40% of youngsters. This prevalence translates to around 46,000 of the 156,000 under-fives in the country being affected by growth retardation. Such high levels of malnutrition are estimated to have resulted in 8% of all under-five mortalities in Swaziland over the last five years, accounting for more than 1,300 deaths.
The study does not identify the reasons for the increase in malnutrition levels, but aims to show the economic impact on the country. So, for example, poor nutrition among young children is estimated to have resulted in around 25,000 clinical appointments during 2009, costing over 7 million dollars in health expenditure. And since stunted children often have to repeat years at school, the report suggests that grade repetition could have cost families and the education system more than 700,000 dollars. Speaking to the news agency IRIN, one fifth-grade teacher in Manzini said that children who hadn’t eaten properly were easy to spot in class because “their eyes droop [and] they cannot concentrate”.
Lack of adequate nutrition in young children also has a long-term impact on the population’s economic activity. The new study found that four-fifths of adults in Swaziland remained stunted, largely due to suffering from malnutrition at a young age. This reduced their physical capacity for work, a factor which is vital in rural areas where most people are engaged in manual activities such as farming. With a reduced ability to earn a living, the children of parents who have been affected by malnutrition are therefore much more likely to suffer in their turn.
Based on the results of the survey, the Economic Planning Minister therefore noted that “the saddest thing is that the cycle [of malnutrition] is not limited to the life cycle of each individual, but affects that person’s children, who will pass it on to yet another generation”.