Officials with multiple UN agencies expressed serious concern Wednesday about the results of a national survey that found that the rising cost of food has halted improvements in child health and nutrition in Cambodia.
According to the Cambodian Anthropometrics Survey, findings of which were released Tuesday by the government’s National Institute of Statistics, the percentage of children under 5 found to be “acutely malnourished” has grown in recent years. According to the findings, 8.4 percent of children under 5 were acutely malnourished in 2005, but that number rose to 8.9 percent last year.
The report also shows a jump since 2005 in the number of young children suffering from ailments such as diarrhea, fever and respiratory infections.
“If these numbers turn out to be true, this is a very serious situation and all stakeholders involved [in food security] should take action soon,” the World Food Program’s recently appointed Country Representative Jean-Pierre De Margerie said.
“The figures are a concern to us,” he said, adding that the global economic crisis might put even more people at risk of becoming malnourished.
De Margerie said the increase in acute malnutrition among poor urban children younger than 5—which increased from 9.6 percent of children in 2005 to 15.9 percent last year, according to the survey—constituted “a significant jump” and has reached an “alarming level.”
He added that the WFP had yet to study the research results to reach a better understanding of the causes of the worsened child-health situation.
Viorica Berdaga, chief of Unicef’s Child Survival and Development Program, said the fact that the trend of improvements in child health had come to a halt, and the suddenness with which this had occurred, was alarming.
Berdaga urged the government to go beyond emergency measures to address the effects of the food crisis and implement actions that target vulnerable groups and offer long-term solutions for the prevention of food insecurity.
“The government should put in place more comprehensive measures, not just food distributions,” she said.
The deteriorating child-health situation also threatens the achievement of three of Cambodia’s Millennium Development Goals: reducing poverty and hunger; achieving universal education; and reducing child mortality, Berdaga said.
Niklas Danielsson, a medical officer for child and adolescent health at the World Health Organization, said WHO was “very concerned” about the findings. “It is worrying. We will closely follow the development [of the food-security situation],” he said, adding that it was too early to say what action WHO might take, or when.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said the Health Ministry should pay attention to the NIS survey. “The Ministry of Health and relevant ministries should take measures to solve the problem,” he said. “Children’s lives are very important.”
Minister of Health Mam Bunheng could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Health Ministry Secretary of State Ouk Monna referred all questions on child health to Secretary of State Eng Huot, who said he was too busy to speak with a reporter. Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith also said he was in a meeting and could not comment.
Phnom Penh municipal health department director Veng Thay said he was surprised to hear that malnutrition in poor urban areas had risen so sharply. “If the survey is right, we should take an interest and solve the problem,” he said.
Veng Thay said the worsening health status of young children was probably not due to rising food prices, but to a lack of child healthcare education among parents.
“People lack child-health education and sanitation. If children get diarrhea, it can lead to malnutrition,” he said.