How child malnutrition hurts families and the PH economy

A 5-year-old girl is fighting for her life alongside her 26-year-old mother

Type: Story

How child malnutrition hurts PH economy

Chanel is soon turning 5, hopefully.

As of 2013, around 31,000 Filipino children like Chanel have died of complications related to undernutrition. Just like these kids, Chanel is extremely small, thin, and sickly.

Will she make it past her 5th birthday? She can if she beats severe malnutrition.

Chanel stands quietly, watching her parents sweat over sweet labor. She scratches her forehead in silence, picking on rashes, scabs, and dry flaky skin. Other times, she picks on her straw-like hair.

Her father sits on his feet, fanning a pot of rice. The family doesn’t own a stove; they cook using charcoal. Meanwhile her mother, Desiree, squats on the floor as she washes clothes by hand.

The house smells of smoke, with a hint of soap. The cement floor is wet and the hollow blocks are bare and chalky. The door and windows are left open to let the heat out and to let some light in.

This is Chanel’s home.

Tight budget

To get home, Chanel must snake through the narrow streets of Barangay Bangculasi in Navotas City. Rain or shine, the ground is muddy and littered.

Across Chanel’s home is a sari-sari store where neighbors gather for lunch and beers. The spot is loved by stray dogs and little kids like Chanel. Desiree also frequents the store to buy cooked meals. “This will last the whole day, to save money,” Desiree said in Filipino.

At present, the 26-year-old mother of three is her family’s sole breadwinner. She earns P700 ($15) per week as a vendor in a canteen. “I make P100 ($2) fit a day,” she said.

Her husband worked as a porter in a nearby fish market until he fell ill. Asthma and other health complications forced him to stay at home. With the additional medical bills, Desiree’s budget has become even tighter.

“Sometimes I borrow money from relatives or neighbors,” said Desiree. “Sometimes food’s not a priority. Sometimes we really have nothing, we can’t do anything about it.”

Chanel’s older brother nibbles on a small pack of chips. His siblings surround him, asking for a bite. Desiree tells them not to eat junk food, but the kids munch on.

“I just want my kids to finish their studies,” Desiree wished. Malnutrition, however, is an obstacle.

Undernourished children are more vulnerable to diarrhea, respiratory infections, and anemia. This disrupts their education; hence as adults, they have more difficulties finding jobs.

Looking at the bigger picture, the Philippines lost P166.5 billion worth of income as a result of lower educational achievement among its workforce who suffered from childhood stunting.

In fact, more than half of Filipinos suffered from undernutrition before the age of 5. Some of these children never make it past 5. They could have grown up to become members of our current working-age population if only given proper care and nutrition.

In total, the Philippines loses P160 billion in lost productivity due to these premature deaths.

Ongoing fight

Chanel was diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition through Save the Children’s Community-based Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM).

The program provides high-energy therapeutic food, a specially formulated food used for treating malnutrition. At the same time, it trains local health workers and parents on proper childcare, hygiene, nutrition, and breastfeeding.

Such trainings are not only for mothers but also for men.

A week into the program, Chanel started gaining weight. She became friendlier and less lethargic. Soon enough, Chanel will fully beat malnutrition.

While Desiree’s happy that Chanel is finally getting better, she’s worried that her other children might also fall prey to malnutrition. In fact, at age 3, Chanel’s younger sister still cannot stand or walk by herself. She’s often anxious, irritable, and crying. Not long ago, Chanel was also like this.

The fight, says Desiree, is not yet over. The young mother cannot rest until all her children are saved from malnutrition.

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