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Long-term program aims to stamp out malnutrition in the Philippines

Can malnutrition -- which affects about 30 percent of the Philippines' preschool children in depressed areas -- be stamped out? According to Dr. Florentino Solon, executive director of the Nutrition Center of the Philippines (NCP), "while we can't wipe it out, we can at least reduce it , especially among children who are severely malnourished."

And thanks to strong government support, the Philippines has pared malnutrition through a program introduced in 1974 by President Ferdinand Marcos.

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"Prior to 1974, our country was politically malnourished," said Dr. Solon pointed out that in 1974 the average Filipino consumed only 1,671 calories daily , considerably below the recommended daily allowance of 2,000.He also consumed an insufficient amount of protein, all of which stunted the Filipino population (the average height of a male is 5 feet 4 inches).

However, after a massive national educational and food-distribution program -- coupled with the fact that the Philippines recently became self-sufficient in rice and coconut oil, the caloric and protein intake of the average Filipino improved significantly.

For instance, according to the Asian Development Bank, the daily caloric intake in 1979 rose to 1,804, which is 88.6 percent adequate; while the protein intake jumped to 53 grams, or 103 percent adequate (compared with 94 percent in 1974). This means that the Philippines still has a caloric-intake deficit, but is normal on average vis-a-vis protein intake.

In fact, comparative Asian Development Bank figures show that the Philippines climbed from the bottom of the Asian nutrition scale (in 1974) to No. 13 (out of 25 countries) in 1979 for per capital protein intake, and to No. 8 for per-capita caloric intake. At the top of both scales are Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea -- at the bottom Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Bangladesh.

Dr. Rubin Engl, a nutrition expert of the US Agency for International Development, observed that the Philippines' nutrition track record in recent years is remarkable, particularly in light of worldwide inflation and rising food prices which have affected low-income groups.

"Indeed, the Philippines deserves to be complimented for the attention it has given to malnutrition," Dr. Engl said. "Furthermore, its nutrition program has become a model for several developing countries."

Who are the victims of malnutrition? What are its cause? According to the NCP, the malady is common among landless laborers, small-scale farmers, slum dwellers, and low-income fishermen.

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Its causes are inadequate food supply prompted by low food production capacity and the use of large land resources for export crops. Other factors are low per-capita income and purchasing power, as well as poor food distribution, storage, and marketing. Likewise, an abundance of unplanned pregnancies and parent ignorance of proper food preparation further aggravate the problem.

How has the Philippines attacked malnutrition? First, it has launched a nationwide weight survey, known as Operation Timbang, which was designed to pinpoint which children were malnourished. The survey -- which was the most comprehensive ever undertaken in a developing country -- showed that 1.3 million , or 30.6 percent, of the children weighed were moderately (24.8 percent) or severely (5.8 percent) undernourished. The children weighted represented 45 percent of the estimated 9.5 million preschoolers in the country.

Aside from determining the extent of malnutrition, Operation Timbaing served to generate nutrition awareness among local residents and increase community involvement in the nutrition program.

The program's objectives were to increase protein and energy intake among households, augment the weight of malnourished children, and reduce the prevalence of malnutrition, disease, and stunted children.

"The Philippine nutrition program uses an interdisciplinary team approach, involving both public and private sectors, to deliver nutrition services to target families," said Dr. Solon. "Program delivery stresses local self-reliance and is effected through nutrition committees established at all community levels."

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