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Friday, February 19, 2010
Suffer the little children
As the country is struggling with seemingly endless political emergencies on a daily basis, it is a cause for alarm that the IQ and development of Thai children have fallen below international standards.
According to the Health Department of the Ministry of Public Health, the World Health Organisation's standard scores for IQ and age-appropriate child development are between 90-100. In developed countries, it is 104. In Thailand, it is only 88 - a drop from 91 that was recorded 12 years ago.
The state of health of Thai children under the age of five is also declining. A decade ago, 72% of children under five had proper developmental stages. Now, the figure has dropped to only 67%, said Dr Somyot Deerasamee, director-general of the Health Department.
Despite the political turmoil, Thailand's is still a relatively strong economy with a huge agricultural and food base. During the past 30 years, Thailand has also been highly successful in eliminating severe child malnutrition as well as in improving maternal and child health care.
Why then the setback?
More disturbing statistics: Only 30% of newborns are breast-fed for the whole six months after birth. As many as 45% of the infants aged between six and 12 months do not receive a proper diet according to their development stages. When in nursery and primary school, the children develop an addiction to fatty foods and excessive sugar and salt from regular consumption of junk food that is also laced with additives and chemicals.
During 2004-7, the number of children who regularly consume sodas and junk food increased 1.8- and 1.5-fold respectively, he reported. Meanwhile, school children eat only 1.5 spoonfuls of vegetables a day when the proper amount per day is 12 spoonfuls.
Apparently, poverty is no longer the cause of child malnutrition in Thailand. It is improper diet and lifestyle. Dr Somyot cited research showing that a child spends about 9,800 baht a year on junk food while his/her expenses for education amount to only 3,240 baht. The result is malnutrition and bad nutrition simultaneously.
According to the Health Department, one in five children in Thailand will suffer obesity by the year 2015. And one in 10 schoolchildren will be vulnerable to diabetes, high blood pressure and other heart diseases due to obesity. These three diseases cut deep into public medical care expenses. In 2005, they cost the country 70,000 million baht.
The future is grim judging from past statistics. In 1999, about 2% of children and teenagers suffered from diabetes. Five years later, the figure rose nine-fold to 18%.
At the other end of the spectrum is the persistent problem of child malnutrition which causes stunted physical growth and slow learning, thus robbing children of their chance to realise their full potential which will end up hurting economic productivity, said Dr Narong Saiwong from the Nutrition Association of Thailand.
It is good news that the health and education authorities have joined forces with the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and the Department of Local Administration to tackle the problem of child malnutrition and obesity. But their plan, which targets nurseries, schools and communities, will definitely not be enough.
The problem of child obesity and malnutrition is not about ignorance that can be redressed through better nutrition information. It is about the money power of the junk food industry, the impotent bureaucracy and weak consumer rights awareness. It is also about the lack of state welfare support for working mothers. We need the political will to confront the junk food industry and to curtail their advertisements, which bombard our children day in and day out.
We need a strong consumer movement that can hit the junk food industry where it hurts most - its pocket.
We need better work and welfare policies so that working mothers can breast-feed and spend more time with their children.
It helps the working mothers greatly, too, if our culture teaches fathers to help with child-rearing and housework.
Short of these moves, the twin problem of child obesity and malnutrition will be here to stay - and worsen.
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