The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has revealed shocking statistics on the health of Malaysian urban children. The one-month study conducted last year, revealed that one in five children in Kuala Lumpur’s working class neighbourhoods including low-cost flats is stunted, while one in 10 is underweight.

Focusing on urban child poverty and deprivation, the study was conducted by UNICEF and DM Analytics, between 20 August and 30 September last year. It included 966 heads of households and 2,142 children from 17 different locations in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya.

It also revealed that the prevalence of underweight (22%), stunting (23%) and wasting (32%) among children aged below five living in the capital are double the city’s average, while the number of overweight children is six times higher (23%).

Ironically, a high occurrence of obesity in the nation was also observed, when compared to countries with the same level of economic wealth as Malaysia.

“For instance, nearly 13% of our children aged five to 19 are obese, [a number that is] higher than Hungary (11%), Turkey (10%), and Poland (9%). In terms of stunting, Malaysian children perform worse than Ghana, despite Malaysia’s GDP per capita being six times higher,” detailed the report “Children Without: A study of urban child poverty and deprivation in low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur”.

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Malaysian children more stunted than those in African countries

Surprisingly, income was correlated with health – being raised in a high-income family did not mean better health – as even the richest district in Malaysia, Putrajaya, has one in four children being stunted.
“Children in the poorest state, Kelantan (34%), also performed much worse than children in low-income countries like Zimbabwe (27.6%) and Swaziland (25.5%),” the report highlighted.

According to the UNICEF Urban Child Poverty Report, children living in low-cost DBKL flats are the most malnourished. Photo credit: The Edge Financial Daily
According to the UNICEF Urban Child Poverty Report, children living in low-cost DBKL flats are the most malnourished. Photo credit: The Edge Financial Daily

Compared to nine of Malaysia’s Asean neighbours, Malaysian children are worse off. Malaysia ranked eighth (8%) for children who are wasting, third (17.7%) for children who are stunted, fourth (12.4%) for children who are underweight, seventh (7.1%) for children who are overweight, and ninth (12.7%) for children who are obese.

Nutrition plays a bigger role in future economy of nation

Malnutrition was especially worse for children in low-cost flats when compared with the national and Kuala Lumpur’s average. The prevalence of malnutrition was also higher among older children aged four versus aged two, which is when they have been weaned off breast milk and are fed solid food, noted DM Analytics managing director and chief economist Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid.

Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid, Managing Director and Chief Economist, DM Analytics, highlighted that a higher percentage of Malaysian children are stunted compared to African countries. Photo credit: Illuminasi
Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid, Managing Director and Chief Economist, DM Analytics, highlighted that a higher percentage of Malaysian children are stunted compared to African countries. Photo credit: Illuminasi

This malnourishment has serious implications on a child’s learning capacity and capability later in life, according to Dr Amjad Rabi, Deputy Representative and Senior Social Policy Specialist, UNICEF Malaysia. He also raised concerns as this affects the future of Malaysia.

“As we strive towards TN50, we cannot afford to have unhealthy, unproductive kids,” emphasised Rabi, pointing out that by the year 2050, these children will be working adults in their 30s.

The problem may even extend to even before birth; as 30.8% of pregnant women are found to be anaemic, according to the 2016 National Health and Morbidity Survey.

High prices of food cited as main problem

Tragically, the survey revealed that more than one in 10 children have less than three meals a day, with 97% of households citing high food prices as the major issue, preventing them from preparing healthy meals for their children.

Half of the respondents expressed they did not have enough money to buy food in recent months, with 15% experiencing this frequently, the study found.

Most notably, the high prices of dairy products make it among one of the most lacking components of a child’s diets, Muhammed elaborated.

“Although global prices for dairy have declined, the opposite trend has been seen in Malaysia,” he added, citing a 2016 State of Households II report by Khazanah Research Institute.

As for local sources of dairy, there are “supply-side problems for dairy in Malaysia,” due to “a lack of investment in agriculture”, according to Rabi.

Dr Amjad Rabi, Deputy Representative and Senior Social Policy Specialist, UNICEF Malaysia, said that the economy of Malaysia will be affected if the current generation is malnourished. Photo credit: Razak School of Government
Dr Amjad Rabi, Deputy Representative and Senior Social Policy Specialist, UNICEF Malaysia, said that the economy of Malaysia will be affected if the current generation is malnourished. Photo credit: Razak School of Government

More health policy measures recommended

The report concluded by recommending several policy measures to address the issue of poor nutrition – including the advocacy of a sugar-tax, universal child care grants and working arrangements for mothers to facilitate at least six months of proper breastfeeding.

Other interventions included revisiting poverty indicators, namely the Poverty Line Income (PLI) and using multidimensional indicators that include the nutritional status of children and relative income poverty.

The UNICEF Urban Child Poverty Report also detailed that a staggering 97% of households claimed that high prices and insufficient income were the main problems to providing healthy food for their children. Photo credit: The Edge Financial Daily
The UNICEF Urban Child Poverty Report also detailed that a staggering 97% of households claimed that high prices and insufficient income were the main problems to providing healthy food for their children. Photo credit: The Edge Financial Daily

Most recently, the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Ministry of Education (MOE) have recognised the problem and banned the sale of processed foods – such as fishballs, fishcakes and fried food – in school canteens. The study also suggests adding on even stricter regulation of food sold in and around schools.

“One of the optimal ways to ensure that every child in Malaysia has an equal start in life is by providing a comprehensive social protection floor,” revealed Marianne Clark-Hattingh, UNICEF representative in Malaysia.

“This will facilitate equal access to basic services such as health, education and nutrition for the most marginalised families, thus mitigating the effects of deprivation on children, and help break the cycle of poverty,” she added. MIMS


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Sources:
https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/02/26/kids-in-low-cost-flats-in-kl-face-poverty-and-malnutrition-says-unicef/#5XowQvx7jZyL6POY.99
http://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/malaysian-kids-more-stunted-those-africa
http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2018/02/27/unicef-warns-on-health-of-kl-children-in-new-study/
http://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/malaysias-children-more-stunted-african-countries-%E2%80%94-unicef-malaysia
https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/media_urban_child_poverty.html
https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/FINAL-REPORT-1.pdf
http://www.iku.gov.my/index.php/research-eng/list-of-research-eng/iku-eng/nhms-eng/nhms-2016
http://www.iku.gov.my/images/IKU/Document/REPORT/2016/NHMS2016ReportVolumeI.pdf
http://www.iku.gov.my/images/IKU/Document/REPORT/2016/NHMS2016ReportVolumeII-MaternalChildHealthFindingsv2.pdf