x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

UN blames nation's high rate of stunted growth on malnutrition

Mothers are being urged to breast-feed their babies after a UN study found abnormally high rates of stunted growth among children in the UAE.

Mothers are being urged to breast-feed their babies after a UN study found abnormally high rates of stunted growth among children in the UAE. Between 2003 and 2008, nearly one in five UAE children under the age of five - 17 per cent - had some degree of height impairment. Among under-fives last year, 51,000 out of 307,000 children suffered from moderately or severely stunted growth.

The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) said this was due to malnutrition in the children or in their mothers before they gave birth. Unicef recommends that mothers rely exclusively on breast-feeding during a child's early months as a way of providing required nutrients. However, only 34 per cent of children in the UAE are exclusively breast-fed in their first six months. Dr Mona Ali, a paediatrician at the Fathi Emara Polyclinic in Dubai, said: "A large number of children here are kept from breast-feeding, even though all the nutrients the child needs are there in breast milk."

Unicef's report, Tracking Progress on Child and Maternal Nutrition, said 14 per cent of UAE children under five were either moderately or severely underweight. Fifteen per cent of babies had low weight at birth. The report estimated the infant mortality rate to be eight deaths per 1,000 live births. Egypt was found to have 29 per cent stunted growth and Saudi Arabia 20 per cent, but in Bahrain and Qatar the incidence was just 10 per cent and eight per cent, respectively. Yemen had the highest incidence in the Middle East at 58 per cent.

In the United States, the rate of stunted growth was just three per cent. Undernourished children can face a host of health problems, including a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes, impaired cognitive function and in extreme cases, death. In October, the Emirates Medical Association launched a campaign to teach doctors about paediatric nutrition. At the time, Dr Wafa Ayash, a clinical nutritionist at Rashid Hospital in Dubai, said poor nutrition among children in the UAE was a result of dietary habits.

"It is clear that, in this current generation, the two extremes have become the norm," she said. "We have severe cases of obese children and severe cases of underweight children, because the parents don't know what they should and should not be eating and feeding their kids." Hospitals have been trying to promote breast-feeding by reducing advertisements for synthetic milk products and encouraging natural breast-feeding, which can reduce the incidence of allergies and diabetes.

So far, nine out of more than 20 government hospitals have been certified by the joint World Health Organisation-Unicef "Baby Friendly Initiative". kshaheen@thenational.ae