If We Can Conquer Space, We Can Conquer Hunger Too
In Pakistan, thousands of women and infants die each year from medical conditions that are easily manageable. Malnutrition is a serious issue that is exacerbated by poor health-seeking behaviour, a lack of social protection, extreme poverty, conflict, and displacement.
Health seeking behaviour is how a community uses health services and this can be influenced by the cost of services, distance to health facilities, cultural beliefs, level of health knowledge and inadequate facilities.
According to the National Nutrition Survey 2011, one-third of all children are underweight and nearly 44 percent are stunted. Studies have shown that in Pakistan, 43.7 percent of all children are stunted. In rural areas, stunting in children is much higher (46.3 percent) than in urban areas (36.9 percent). At the national level, 61.9 percent of children have been found to be anemic. The survey findings revealed that only 3 percent of the children received a diet that met the minimum standards of dietary diversity.
The National Nutrition Survey 2011 also revealed that the lack of access to clean water and unsatisfactory sanitary conditions are important contributors to many childhood illnesses. Waterborne diseases and worm infestations are very common among those living in rural areas or where there is improper sanitation coverage.
As highlighted in the survey, a majority of rural mothers shared the opinion that women lacked access to medical care for themselves and their children because they were barred by the male members of the family to get healthcare.
Unfortunately, mothers from southern Punjab believe, “Feeding the girl child is not a viable deal as she has to leave for another house after marriage.” Furthermore, it is also evident that the employment status and education level of a mother is directly linked with the nutritional status of her children.
It is important to know that malnutrition, infants’ mortality and stunted growth of children have been the most serious health issues which have been neglected deliberately over the past four decades. Deaths of thousands of children aged 1-3 years in Thar, Sindh over the past few years is a classic example in this regard. PPP government in Sindh spent billions on the cultural festival in 2017 but was not inclined to spend it on addressing the issues of malnutrition and infant mortality.
The prices of medicines are not affordable for the poor, and local production of medicine has never been the priority of successive governments. Consequently, the country and its 220 million people are at the mercy of multinational companies. The multinational companies are earning hefty profits but they are not paying taxes on their incomes and profits. These companies do not invest in quality improvement through research.
On the other hand, in the neighbouring India, production of raw material for pharmaceuticals is a thriving industry. Same is the case for the production of different vaccines. Ironically, in Pakistan, the technology, know-how, and expertise available in the National Health Laboratories are not utilised for producing vaccines needed for prevention of diseases. Overcoming the malnutrition crisis is the responsibility of provincial governments as the federal government can only assist them by engaging foreign agencies to provide financial and technical assistance.
Although the federal government is committed and has approved nutrition-specific and health-integrated nutrition projects in the provinces, along with ensuring nutrition inputs into Pakistan ‘Vision 2025’ and Five-Year Plan, there is still much to do. Prime Minister Imran Khan has also announced his policy statement on the Ehsaas Program, envisaging four focus areas with food and nutrition as priorities on the government’s agenda.
Basic health units and rural health centres can play a vital role in solving health issues at the grassroots level. But the infrastructure of primary healthcare lacks medicines, equipment and electricity. These centres can be equipped with these facilities with the timely release of budgetary allocations.
Pakistan is heading towards population explosion as its growth rate of 2.9 percent is very high. Bangladesh succeeded in promoting smaller family norms with the help of religious scholars. No such efforts have been seriously made in Pakistan. Hopefully, the PTI-led government in the centre and provinces will prioritise issues of malnutrition, infant mortality and overpopulation and work out viable policies to effectively address them.