Few die at childbirth, most go to primary school and almost all are vaccinated at the right time, but the sizeable number of Sri Lankan children who are stunted, wasted and underweight for their age are a cause for concern, according to nutritional authorities.
Recently published government statistics show that despite countless initiatives to alleviate malnutrition over the years, the condition is still entrenched in traditionally poor and conflict-hit regions, and affects hundreds of thousands of children.
The Demographic and Health Survey 2006/2007, a draft of which was released by the Health and Nutrition Ministry and the Census and Statistics Department, shows that 22 percent of Sri Lankan children are underweight, 18 percent are stunted and 15 percent show signs of wasting.
The latest figures could be distorted, with the survey leaving out five districts in the Northern Province - Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Vavuniya and Mullaitivu - where government forces are fighting rebel Tamil Tiger separatists, and access to accurate date is almost impossible.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has for some time expressed concern that although Sri Lanka’s overall health indicators are on track to achieve the 2015 Millennium Development Goals.
(MDGs), the nutritional status of children and mothers is the single exception.
The worst-hit districts include Trincomalee and Batticaloa where the conflict raged until last year, causing large-scale displacement of populations. In the districts of Badulla, Nuwara Eliya, Moneragala and Hambantota, poverty among tea plantation workers and farmers has long been endemic.
At the top of the categories, 41 percent of children in Nuwara Eliya District were stunted, while height-for-weight measurements showed that wasting was highest in Trincomalee - 28 percent. In Badulla 32 percent of the children were underweight.
The figures reveal regional disparities, with districts in the western and southwestern parts of the island showing fewer cases of under-nutrition.
“What is very common now is to see people struggling to buy food because of the high prices of staples like rice and bread,” said Judy Devadawson, an adviser to a Trincomalee-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), the Women and Child Care Organisation (WACCO). “In some places, we see very thin children with sunken eyes and they seem lethargic.”
She said she had seen the effects of the rising cost of living and lack of jobs on families, especially in conflict zones such as Trincomalee District, where many have only one breadwinner. “It is almost impossible for them to provide enough food for the whole family.”
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