(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Child malnutrition aggravated by food, oil price rises

With wheat, soybean and rice prices escalating, Indonesians are feeling the pinch and the poor are having to cut back on some of their favorite dishes.
Brennon Jones/IRIN

Thirteen toddlers are fighting for their lives in Ba'a hospital in a remote village in Nusa Tenggara Province, eastern Indonesia. All of them are suffering from malnutrition. "They are very weak - only skin and bones and swollen stomachs," Dr Rina Sudjiawati told IRIN. "Because of their condition they are very vulnerable to other serious illnesses."

Dozens of Indonesian children under five died of malnutrition in the first six months of 2008, according to the health authorities, although no accurate figure can be determined.

The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates 13 million children in Indonesia suffer from malnutrition. In some Indonesian districts about 50 percent of infants and young children are underweight.

"Some parts of this country have even worse data than sub-Saharan Africa," said Anne Vincent, head of the UN Children's Fund's (UNICEF's) health and nutrition section in Indonesia. Vincent is "appalled" by eating habits in Indonesia. "Sometimes they give their children only rice with water. Kids don't grow on that."

The poor feeding practices combined with the decline in breastfeeding is the main cause of the high number of child deaths caused by malnutrition, according to Vincent. "The lives of 30,000 children could be saved [annually] if mothers breastfed their babies exclusively for the first six months." That is only currently being done by a little over 7 percent of Indonesian mothers. Most babies get only breast milk for the first two months, according to UNICEF.

The reasons for quitting breastfeeding so early are numerous. Poor knowledge and no facilities to express milk for working mothers are among the most important ones, said Vincent. Another reason why women stop breastfeeding and start using milk formula is the common, but misplaced, belief that formula is better than breast milk.

Vincent blames companies that sell formula. “I have never seen those companies acting so aggressively anywhere in the world.”

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
WFP estimates 13 million children in Indonesia suffer from malnutrition

Health Ministry working on database

The Ministry of Health says it is working on a database to get an overview of public health per district. "Geographical location forms the biggest risk for malnutrition," said Ina Hernawati, responsible for public nutrition in the Health Ministry, adding that some provinces had less fertile land so adequate food was not readily available. East Nusa Tenggara was one of those provinces.

The death of the under-fed toddlers could have been prevented, Oxfam Country Deputy Director Libby Desforges told IRIN. "The root cause of malnutrition is poverty, and that is something that can be addressed."

She pointed out that although the number of starving toddlers was shocking, large numbers of Indonesian grown-ups were also severely underweight.

Impact of rising oil, food prices

The current increase in oil and food prices in Indonesia is of great concern to aid agencies. In the first half of 2008, the cost of protein-rich, soya-based, staple products such as tofu and `tempe' (fermented soya), rose by about 50 percent, and in May 2008 fuel prices went up by about 30 percent.

In spite of the 6 percent annual growth of the Indonesian economy it is not enough to create jobs for the tens of millions of unemployed. Half of the Indonesian population of 235 million lives on less than US$2 per day.

Vincent told IRIN the food and fuel crisis would increase the number of malnourished. She said people had recently harvested their corn (for human consumption) and cassava crops in East Nusa Tenggara and no food shortages existed there.

But a 22 May report issued by the humanitarian agency Church World Service (CWS) revealed the extent of the food crisis for many families. It said over 91 percent of households in that region were suffering hunger and alarming levels of malnutrition because of inadequate access to food.


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