Malnutrition Affects the Futures of Stunted Children in Madagascar

26/02/2012 - Children fed on only rice and root vegetables suffer from malnutrition, resulting in stunted growth which affects the children’s ability to grow to their full potential.

Children who are stunted at an early age as a result of under-nourishment are not only more susceptible to illness, but also to illness resulting in death and impaired cognitive development.

A 2006 study by the World Bank estimated that stunted adults earned 10 percent less over the course of a lifetime compared to those who development normally.

The fate of children growing up on improper diets have become the source of treatment and intervention for malnourishment at treatment centres to attempt to counteract the effects of poor diets. 

Part of this intervention involves training mothers and primary caregivers on how to prepare the right foods for their children.

In an interview with IRIN, Niaina Andrianjatovo, an instructor at one of the treatment centres, stated that “We teach these mothers that children need to eat from the three different food groups, but it’s difficult to change their habits. Sometimes, they’ll follow our instructions for a while, but then they go back to their own ways. So we have to repeat the same message over and over.”

The Madagascar Demographic Health Survey 2008-09 found that stunting affects half of all Malagasy children under five, the sixth highest rate of stunting in the world, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Poverty is a major factor, and the Southern Africa Regional Food Security Update for February 2012 notes that four-fifths of Madagascar's population now lives on less than US$1 a day and poor households spend 74 percent of their income on food.

Although many children consume enough calories, they have trouble growing because their diet consists almost exclusively of rice, to which cassava or a salty soup may be added and, if the family has enough money, some fatty meat.

“We found that the highest occurrence of stunting is not among the very poor, as they eat the vegetables that they grow instead of selling them, and these are rich in nutrients. The worst cases are those who can afford white rice,” said UNICEF nutrition expert Amal Bennaim.

Workers at nutritional centres claim that they must battle harmful feeding practices, including the practice of women who supplement breast milk with coffee or tea.

High rates of infection during pregnancy and childhood also contribute to stunting in Madagascar where 8 percent of children under five suffer from diarrhoea, and pneumonia affects 3 percent.

The most critical period for stunting is from conception until a child reaches two years, but poor nutrition means that girls often do not reach their full growth potential until they are 21, by which time many are already mothers.

Stunted women are more likely to have low birth weight babies, creating a cycle of malnourishment.