Ryan Dagur – Timor-Leste's government has launched a national program to combat endemic malnutrition that afflicts nearly half of children under five in the Catholic-majority nation.
Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak and Minister of Health Odete Maria Freitas Belo released the National Health Sector Nutrition Strategy Plan 2022-26 on May 5. The plan has garnered support from the European Union and UNICEF, the United Nations children's agency.
Through the program, the government seeks to improve the quality of services for women and children, expand community-based interventions and health facilities for screening and treatment of acute malnutrition, improve access to information on infant and young child feeding practices, and provide early initiation of breastfeeding and complementary feeding.
It also aims to raise the capacity of families to have sufficient nutritious food at home.
The government in the nation of 1.3 million has also set a target to reduce the malnourishment rate of children under five from present 47.1 percent to 25 percent by 2030.
"We are certain that with the partnerships and the launch of the Strategic Plan that is materializing today in the health sector, we will be able to take concrete steps toward the transformation of the national nutrition system," said PM Ruak.
"Actions cannot and should not be taken only by governments and authorities but in a community spirit involving the participation of all, including citizens like consumers, economic operators and the different development partners."
The launch of the health strategy came as the government published the results of a survey on the nutritional status and risk factors for malnutrition in children and women, including those affecting infant and young child-feeding practices.
The report revealed that undernutrition among children under five remains alarmingly high in Timor-Leste.
From 2013 to 2020, undernutrition has dropped slightly, from 50.2 percent to 47.1 percent, which means Timor-Leste "has the third highest prevalence of stunting and is among the only three countries in which at least half of children below five are stunted."
Stunting is the impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition, repeated infection and inadequate psychosocial stimulation, according to the World Health Organization.
The report found that although the exclusive breast-feeding rate for infants less than six months old increased by 10 percent to 62 percent, wasting (too thin for a child's weight) dropped from 11 percent to 8.6 percent and underweight reduced from 37.7 percent to 32.4 percent. It also identified "a significant decline" in the early initiation of breastfeeding, which dropped from 93.4 percent to 46.8 percent.
A lack of parental understanding of children's health is evident in Timor-Leste, the report said. About 53 percent of mothers don't start breastfeeding their newborns under the age of six months and 86 percent are unable to provide healthy complementary food and affordable local nutrition to infants over six months. About 94 percent don't wash their hands after defecating and before breastfeeding or feeding the child.
EU ambassador to Timor-Leste Andrew Jacobs said: "Much more needs to be done to fight the scourge of malnutrition among children."
The EU would continue to support Timor-Leste's Ministry of Health in the implementation of the national nutrition strategy, with an assistance of more than US$15 million, while UNICEF provides both budget and technical assistance.
UNICEF representative in Timor-Leste Bilal Durrani said that malnutrition is a "a silent emergency, and if actions are not taken before a child turns two years old, it is already too late."
"This has a direct impact on the nation's human capital as half of the population of Timor-Leste would not have fully grown brains to contribute to the economic development of the country," he said.
World Bank data shows that undernutrition depresses Timor-Leste's economy by $41 million annually, he pointed out.