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One in 10 Aceh children 'malnourished'

Jakarta Post - August 2, 2006

Tb. Arie Rukmantara, Jakarta – Nearly 10 percent of more than 500,000 children under five years old living in tsunami-devastated Aceh and Nias Island are acutely malnourished and not 60 percent as earlier claimed, Unicef says.

In a recent survey, the UN agency says children outside the devastated areas are fairing just as badly, with little differences in rates in other provinces in nearby North Sumatra.

"Around 9.8 percent of children under five years in Aceh and Nias are suffering from moderate to severe acute malnutrition," Lely Djuhari, a Unicef spokeswoman for the Aceh and Nias program, told The Jakarta Post.

The figure makes children in northern Sumatra considerably less likely to suffer from malnutrition than those in other areas, if the percentage is compared to the national average of 28 percent.

Lely said the health and nutrition survey was carried out last September by the Health Ministry, UN agencies, academic institutions and non-governmental organizations. It covered 20 districts across Aceh and Nias and North Sumatra, involving a total population of 3.65 million.

Lely said UNICEF did not agree with last week's reports sourced from a supervisor at the Aceh-Nias Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency (BRR) that an estimated 60 percent of Acehnese children under five were malnourished, mostly of them living in emergency camps for tsunami victims. "The figure is not correct," Lely said but declined to elaborate.

Children were judged to be suffering from moderate malnutrition if they weighed less than 80 percent of their normal weight by height, while those with cases of severe acute malnutrition weighed less than 70 percent of their normal weight, Lely said.

However, Unicef also noted malnutrition cases had been found in Aceh prior to the 2004 tsunami.

Lely said the survey found no significant differences in children living in areas that were not affected by the tsunami. "The Acehnese people were suffering from poor nutrition before the tsunami because of various causes," she said.

The resource-rich province had been embroiled in separatist conflict for almost 30 years until last August when the government and the Free Aceh Movement signed a peace accord in Helsinki, Finland.

UNICEF said during the conflict many Acehnese mothers did not exclusively breast feed babies until the age of six months. Nor were many children immunized from diseases or given constant supplies of nutritious food.

Parents were often ignorant about the best kinds of food to feed their children, and pregnant women were not getting proper nutrition and ended up giving birth to low-weight babies, the group said. The situation was exacerbated because local people rarely had access to clean water and good sanitation.

An advisor to the Children's Legal Aid Institute for Aceh, Cut Hasniati said the malnutrition rate showed agencies working in the tsunami-devastated areas were not implementing health programs properly.

"What the government, the BRR, donors and all related agencies have to do now is to monitor (children) and to make sure their health programs, such as distributing milk and other nutritious food, are implemented routinely and effectively," said Hasniati, who is a former BRR director for children and women.

Health Ministry director for community nutrition Ina Hernawati said the findings were not surprising since the government had earlier identified some areas in Aceh and Nias with high rates of malnutrition before the tsunami.

She said the people should not directly link the malnutrition cases with the tsunami. "Malnutrition is not just caused by one factor – a lack of intake nutritious food – because there are also indirect factors, such as poverty, culture, health behavior and levels of awareness," Ina said.

She said Indonesia still faced a high prevalence rate of malnutrition with 28 percent of its 18 million children suffering from malnourishment.

To address the problem, Ina said her office had deployed hundreds of medical officials in Aceh and Nias to help improve health services for local people and increase their health awareness.