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Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Increase in infant health inequality: What is Pakistan doing about it?

Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries except those in Sub-Saharan Africa, which are ranked lowest on child health equality because of high child mortality rates, according to a WHO report. Poverty and inequality go hand-in-hand, and both are prevalent in Pakistan.

Researchers have found an increase in infant health inequality between educated, economically advantaged mothers and economically disadvantaged mothers without a high school degree. This suggests a reversal in the previous trend that indicated that the infant health inequity gap was narrowing.

Babies who are born prematurely are at risk of cardiovascular disease and increased high blood pressure that can persist into adulthood. Additional research shows that a low birth weight or preterm birth can lead to cognitive delays, behavioral issues, and a lower likelihood of attaining higher education and gainful employment.

The team found data indicating a reversal of a pre-2010 infant health trend that showed that the health gap between infants born to married, highly educated White mothers and those born to unmarried Black mothers without a high school degree had steadily narrowed. The study noticed a possible shift in trends while analyzing data on how a mother’s education level impacts infant health, along with previous information on the impact of maternal race.

Read more: Ensuring Food Security in Pakistan

To investigate further, they examined 22 million U.S. births using administrative birth certificate data from 1989 to 2018. They identified gaps in infant health categorized by the mother’s race, marital status, and educational level. The researchers also gathered data on infant health gaps between economically advantaged mothers and those who were the most financially disadvantaged.

Child healthcare in Pakistan

Pakistan, along with Afghanistan are the only countries except those in Sub-Saharan Africa, which are ranked lowest on child health equality because of high child mortality rates, according to a WHO report. Poverty and inequality go hand-in-hand, and both are prevalent in Pakistan.

The reasons behind child health inequalities in Pakistan are rooted in illiteracy, abject poverty, and lack of awareness and knowledge about child healthcare and poor living conditions. Poor families live in unhygienic areas that lack basic necessities like clean drinking water. Inevitably, newborns in poor households are more susceptible to diseases like diarrhea, and other diseases that are life-threatening for babies.

Food Fortification Program (FFP)

FFP is a five-year-long program introduced in all of Pakistan’s provinces. It was first launched in 2016 and will continue till 2021. The program is dedicated to curbing stunted growth and micronutrient deficiencies in children as well as lactating mothers. 

The government recently has decided to extend FFP to overcome stunted growth in children under five years of age in KPK. It will be extended through its food department to backward districts, aimed at increasing the nutrition level of lactating mothers and stunted children. The fortification process of ghee and wheat flour has been initiated, informed KP Food Department officials.

Read more: PM Khan launches “Nashonuma” project to reduce malnutrition problem

48 percent of children suffer from stunted growth, while 34 percent are underweight, stated officials. They further explained that these challenges are more prominent in urban areas. FFP would allow several children to fulfill their nutritional requirements and they would not have to pay extra for ghee and atta. 

‘Tackling Malnutrition Induced Stunting in Pakistan’ 

In November, in its 43rd meeting, the Council of Common Interests (CCI) approved a project focused on addressing malnutrition as well as stunted growth in children in Pakistan. The project ‘Tackling Malnutrition Induced Stunting in Pakistan’ is worth 350 billion and would run for five years (2020-2025).

Through this project, 30 percent of the total population will be targeted, which includes 3.9 million children under the age of two and 15 million women of reproductive age.

It was also decided that the total cost will be divided equally between the federal and the provincial governments, suggesting that both parties will contribute around 175 billion each. 

The meeting further decided that nutrition supplementary commodities, capacity building of new and existing healthcare workers, and research and monitoring will be provided by the federal government. While the aim of the provincial governments would involve contributing towards implementation through community and lady health workers, identifying the target population, handling the program’s management, institutional arrangement, evaluation, and data sharing.

‘Ehsaas Nashonuma’

In August of this year, Prime Minister Imran Khan launched the ‘Ehsaas Nashonuma’ program, a cash transfer program aimed at addressing stunting and malnutrition in young children across Pakistan. The program also sought to address the food security issue which is prevalent in the country.

Under the program, it was decided that the government would provide stipends to mothers for two years after the birth of their child to ensure their nutrition and development.

Read more: CCI launches an important project to overcome malnutrition in children