Leaders urged to act quickly to improve nutrition in Pakistan

Group of three Pakistani women

Islamabad, PAKISTAN – A two-day national conference to step up action on malnutrition brought together parliamentarians, government officials, donors, academics and civil society organizations in Islamabad today.

With only 10 years left to reach global targets, including the Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger, Nutrition International, the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Secretariat and the SUN Civil Society Alliance, and the Ministry of Planning Development and Special Initiative brought together Pakistan leaders for “Improved Nutrition – Secure Future” to build strategies for the country to meet these targets. The learnings from this conference will be used to fast-track effective implementation of maternal, child and adolescent nutrition strategies and programs.

“This conference is an opportunity for stakeholders to take stock of the malnutrition situation at the national and provincial levels and identify opportunities for action,” said Dr. Shabina Raza, Country Director for Nutrition International, to open the proceedings. “The national nutrition conference will help us understand clear pathways for multisectoral integration and develop actionable plans, using existing coordination mechanisms for accelerating improvement in nutrition.”

The event was organized in response to the alarming results of the government’s most recent nutrition survey. According to National Nutrition Survey 2018, Pakistan is facing the triple burden of malnutrition, with high rates of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and increasing prevalence of obesity. Women, adolescents and children are most affected.

The survey found 40.2% of children under five years of age are stunted, while 17.7% suffer from wasting. The double burden of malnutrition is apparent, with 28.9% of children underweight and 9.5% overweight. Despite marginal improvement from 2011, when the prevalence of stunting was 43.7%, it remains at a critical level. Experts believe that this change can be attributed to population increase, and there has actually been very little improvement.

Women aged 15-49 years of age are also facing the triple burden of malnutrition: 14% are undernourished, 28% are overweight and 38% are obese, a number that is reported to be increasing. Almost 42% of women and 57% of adolescent girls are anaemic.

President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Dr. Arif Alvi, was the Chief Guest of the conference. He expressed his concern about the alarming rates of malnutrition in the county and emphasized the need to move beyond just talk, take action and follow deadlines to tackle the crisis of malnutrition.

President Alvi stressed the importance of breastfeeding and consuming locally available diverse and nutritious foods. He also highlighted the media’s role in raising awareness about health and diet.

Also addressing the attendees, Dr. Allah Baksh, Secretary Ministry of  National Health Services, Regulation and Coordination, outlined the actions the government has taken to address the situation, including the National Health Vision 2016-2025, which aims to achieve universal health coverage through a resilient and responsive health system, and realize the Sustainable Development Goals and other national and international commitments. To fulfill that vision, many crucial policy and guidance documents have been developed at the federal level, such as the Infant and Young Child Feeding Strategy 2016-2020, the adolescent nutrition strategy, the nationwide vitamin A supplementation program, and the national food fortification program. A multi-billion rupees nutrition program is also being finalized, which will be implemented at the provincial level.

Ms. Wendy Gilmore, Canadian High Commissioner to Pakistan, shared Canada’s support for the country’s efforts to eliminate malnutrition.

“Canada is proud to support Pakistan’s efforts on addressing malnutrition issues through our partner Nutrition International,” said Ms. Gilmore. “Nutrition requires a comprehensive approach, with the empowerment of women and girls at its core, as it impacts health, education, and economic development outcomes.”

During the first day’s technical session leading global and national experts, including Dr. Zulfiqar A. Bhutta and Dr. Rubina Sohail, shared feasible recommendations for improving maternal and child nutrition in Pakistan. The session was chaired by Professor Dr. Mehr Taj Roghani, a senior parliamentarian, and co-chaired by Dr. Nosheen Hamid, Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of National Health Services Regulations and Coordination.

Messages from Mr. Joel Spicer, President and CEO of Nutrition International, and Ms. Gerda Verburg, Global Coordinator for the SUN Movement and Assistant Secretary General for the United Nations, were screened for participants, showing their support and congratulating the government on its leadership.

The first day was concluded by Tehrik e Niswan, who gave a theatrical performance demonstrating the first 1,000 days of life.

The second day of the conference will feature specialists from health, agriculture, social protection, education and other relevant sectors sharing their recommendations to leverage existing investments in development projects.