Child nutrition survey shows improvements in DPRK, but UN agencies concerned about holding onto gains

PYONGYANG/GENEVA, 20 February 2003 -- Malnutrition rates among children in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) have improved considerably over the past four years, according to a new survey, but the UN agencies that announced the findings today said the gains could be lost if international support for humanitarian assistance to the country continues to slacken.
The assessment -- the largest of its kind ever to be undertaken in the DPRK -- covered both child and maternal nutrition and was carried out last October by the government's Central Bureau of Statistics and Institute of Child Nutrition, in collaboration with UNICEF and the World Food Programme.

The two UN agencies said although the new assessment is not strictly comparable with an earlier survey carried out in 1998, clear positive trends are discernible:

  • The proportion of children underweight (weight-for-age) has fallen from 61 percent in 1998 to 21 percent in 2002

  • Wasting, or acute malnutrition (weight-for-height), has fallen from 16 percent to 9 percent

  • Stunting, or chronic malnutrition (height-for-age), has dropped from 62 percent to 42 percent.

The Government of DPRK attributed the improvement in part to the substantial humanitarian assistance provided by the international community in recent years. The exceptionally high levels of malnutrition recorded in 1998 also reflected the famine conditions that prevailed in the DPRK in the mid 1990s.

"The results are very encouraging and our assistance is clearly reaching the people intended with positive effect," said Kenzo Oshima, Under Secretary-General of the United Nations for Humanitarian Affairs.

The assessment also provided the first objective analysis of differing vulnerability across the country. Stunting among children in Nampo City was 25 percent, for example, compared to 48 percent in South Hamgyong Province. The wasting rate in Pyongyang, the capital, was just under 4 percent, against 12 percent in South Hamgyong. The survey found similar patterns in food availability and the incidence of childhood diarrhoea.

UNICEF and WFP said such patterns confirmed their observations from field monitoring that the northeastern provinces are more vulnerable than other parts of the country.

Malnourished Mothers

A further important finding was that about one-third of mothers are malnourished and anaemic. "This is certainly a crucial factor contributing to child malnutrition," said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF. "Among other things, the survey proves yet again how important a mother's health and nutritional status is to that of her children."

Though child malnutrition has fallen considerably, according to the survey, the two agencies said there is still "great cause for concern."

According to World Health Organization criteria, the wasting rates are still "high", and the stunting rates are "very high." Moreover, the recent slump in external donations for food, medical and other assistance could compromise the gains.

"The crisis is not over. If the UN can't provide more medicine and food -- and quickly -- we will see malnutrition rates rise again, undoing much of the progress that has been made," warned James T. Morris, WFP Executive Director.

UNICEF and WFP staff working in the DPRK participated in the data collection teams for the assessment. In addition, experts from the UK's Centre for International Child Health and the Bangkok-based Thailand Health Foundation provided support for survey design, training and verification of statistical accuracy. The two independent bodies pronounced it a credible and accurate assessment.

The survey covered children under seven years of age and their mothers, from 6,000 randomly selected households in 10 of the country's 12 provinces and municipalities. The youngest child from each household was weighed and measured, and the mother's nutritional condition was assessed. In addition, questions were asked about factors that could influence nutrition, such as food availability, child feeding and care, and health status.

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For further information, please contact:

Richard Bridle, UNICEF Representative, DPRK: (+8502) 381-7234
Charles Rycroft, UNICEF Media, Beijing: (+8610) 6532-3131
Emily Booker, UNICEF Media, Bangkok: (+622) 356-9406
Wivina Belmonte, UNICEF Media, Geneva: (+4122) 909-5509
Trevor Rowe, WFP Spokesman, Rome: (+3906) 6513-2602
Gerald Bourke, WFP Beijing: (+8610) 6532-3731 ext. 209
Mobile: (+8613) 8010-54051

Access more information about UNICEF and WFP programs in DPRK at www.unicef.org and www.wfp.org