ISLAMABAD-Above 15% children below the age of 5 years suffer from severe malnutrition while good maternal nutrition of lactating mothers can contribute to the healthy growth of newborns and children, speakers said on Saturday.

A media dialogue on the nutrition situation affecting children, adolescents and women of Pakistan was organised by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) here on Saturday.

The dialogue, held in collaboration with Ministry of National Health Services highlighted the challenges and opportunities related to nutrition in the country.

The interactive discussion featured guests including Kanwal Shauzab, MNA and Parliamentary Secretary Planning Dr Nausheen Hamid, MNA and Parliamentary Secretary NHSRC Dr Abdul Baseer Khan Achakzai, Director Nutrition MNHSRC Aslam and others.

The panel of experts expressed concern over the fact that more than 4 out of every 10 children under the age of five years (over 10 million children) are affected by stunting. Stunting is caused by chronic malnutrition. It inhibits children’s cognitive and physical development, damaging their growth in the long run. More than 15 per cent of children in the same age-group suffer from severe acute malnutrition – an illness that can also be fatal.

The nutritional status of adolescent girls and women impacts the growth and development of their future children. Attempts at reducing the number of underweight and anaemic adolescent girls between the ages of 10 and 19 years have also been slow. The diets of adolescent girls and women are often too poor to meet nutritional needs for their healthy growth and development as well as that of the future children.

Immediate and exclusive breastfeeding is critical for the achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It improves nutrition, prevents child mortality and decreases the risk of non-communicable diseases, and supports cognitive development and education. Breastfeeding is also an enabler to ending poverty, promoting economic growth and reducing inequalities.All these are global goals under the SDGs that Pakistan has also committed to achieving.

A healthy diet meeting the nutritional needs of children protects them against multiple chronic diseases. Good maternal nutrition of lactating mothers also contributes to the healthy growth of newborns. Data shows that less than 4 out of every 10 mothers in the country exclusively breastfeed their newborns for six months – an inevitable requirement to shield children from many health and nutrition related problems. The panel as well as the audience agreed that more is needed to be done to save children from stunting, wasting and other nutrition-related challenges that they are faced with.

The dialogue also reiterated the commitment of the Government of Pakistan and its partners, especially UNICEF, to target critical nutrition indicators such as, among others, immediate and exclusive breastfeeding, nutritional deficiencies, stunting, wasting, and anaemia. The panel also pushed for increased legislation on child nutrition, especially regulating breast milk substitutes such as formula milk rigorously.