27% of Children Chronically Malnourished in Burma Dry Zone: Survey

By Samantha Michaels 17 January 2014

RANGOON — Almost one in five households in Burma’s dry zone are food insecure, while more than a quarter of children are chronically malnourished, a new survey shows.

Findings from an assessment of the nutrition and food security situation in the dry zone were launched in Rangoon on Thursday by the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development, along with the UN World Food Program and international NGO Save the Children. About 18 percent of 1,500 households surveyed lacked access to enough nutritious food to meet their dietary needs, while 12 percent of children under the age of 5 were acutely malnourished and 27 percent were chronically malnourished, or stunted.

The survey was conducted in June and July, near the start of the rainy season and during a period when the dry zone faces annual food insecurity. Data was collected from 1,800 children and their mothers in the zone, which includes parts of Mandalay, Sagaing and Magwe divisions that see limited rainfall and high temperatures, leading to smaller crop yields and water shortages.

“The assessment of the rural dry zone reveals the nutrition situation to be a concern, with high rates of wasting and medium rates of stunting, high rates of low birth weight and high rates of undernutrition among mothers,” an executive summary of the findings said. “The pattern of indicators suggests that flood plains and irrigated areas are best off, but the situation is far from acceptable in the dry zone as a whole.

“Given the political stability, the absence of extreme weather conditions in the dry zone at the time of the assessment and the seasonality typical food security indicators, including indicators of adequate household food access and consumption, these nutrition indicators are concerning.”

In 2009-10, a survey by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development found that 35 percent of children under age 5 nationally were stunted. The World Food Program classifies Burma as one of 24 “high-burden” countries worldwide with the greatest numbers of children under age 5 who are moderately or severely stunted.

Nicolas Guillaud, a World Food Program officer who focuses on vulnerability analysis and mapping, said it was difficult to compare the recent dry zone findings with statistics from other areas of the country, due to a lack of data. He said the nutrition and food security assessment in June and July was the first of its kind to cover the entire dry zone, although smaller studies have been conducted in the zone and in other areas.

“We did the same food security survey—but only food security, not nutrition—in the Bago [Pegu], Ayeyarwady [Irrawaddy] and Yangon [Rangoon] regions [divisions] already, in November and December last year, but that data has not been analyzed yet,” he told The Irrawaddy. “The plan is to do Shan, Kachin, Chin and Sagaing regions and states in February and March this year, and then probably later in the year Kayin [Karen], Mon and Kayah [Karenni]. That’s when we would be able to do some more comparisons.”

In the past the World Food Program has published bulletins three times annually about the food security situation in Burma’s dry zone, at times revealing higher percentages of households that lack access to enough nutritious food. However, these bulletins did not include data from the entire dry zone, but rather focused on only parts of the zone, usually areas that were more food insecure and vulnerable. The World Food Program cautioned that statistics can also vary greatly depending on the time of year data is gathered, given the change in temperatures and rainfall between the seasons.

The assessment in June and July did reveal some positive practices for nutrition in the dry zone, including almost universal breastfeeding of children until the age of 2 and small family sizes. However, it found poor diet diversity and infrequent meals from six months of age, as well as poor diet quality of mothers.

Next month Burma is expected to become one of 45 countries to join the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement, a collective global effort by national governments and development partners that focuses on evidence-based nutrition interventions to improve maternal and child nutrition. A launch event and workshop will take place in Naypyidaw from Feb. 6-8.