Calling for accelerated action, UN and Zimbabwe Government launch nutrition survey results

HARARE, Zimbabwe, 30 July 2010 - The Inclusive Government of Zimbabwe, the United Nations and the Zimbabwe Food and Nutrition Council (FNC) have launched new data on the nutritional status of Zimbabwe's children, revealing that more than one third of Zimbabwe's children under the age of five are chronically malnourished and consequently stunted.

Speaking as he officially launched the Zimbabwe National Nutrition Survey results, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said that Zimbabwe's current food production remains too low to meet national requirements. Years of persistent droughts and the recent downturn of the Zimbabwean economy have adversely affected food availability in many homes in Zimbabwe.

Trends revealed

Mr. Tsvangirai added his voice to a growing call for accelerated action to reverse chronic undernutrition in Zimbabwe. He also spoke about the need to maintain the low levels of severe acute malnutrition highlighted by the report.

"As government, we have agreed to make nutrition a priority at the national and sub-national level because it is central for human, social and economic development," said the Prime Minister. "Persistent and deteriorating chronic malnutrition means Zimbabwe is unlikely to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goal number one - to halve poverty and hunger."

The National Nutrition Survey, which was conducted in January 2010, revealed a worsening problem of chronic malnutrition, posing long-term survival and development challenges for Zimbabwe. The survey also shows plummeting exclusive breastfeeding rates.

However, the low and stable rates of severe acute malnutrition revealed by the survey are a credit to both the food security programmes supported by the international community as well as the coping mechanisms of the Zimbabwean people.

Thousands at risk

In his response to the survey results, UNICEF Representative in Zimbabwe Dr. Peter Salama said the report further demonstrated that the age of greatest vulnerability to malnutrition and infection is from the pre-natal period to 24 months. He identified this period as a "critical window of opportunity."

"The data emerging from the survey provides irrefutable evidence of the magnitude of the problem of malnutrition in Zimbabwe," said Dr. Salama. "These levels of malnutrition are unacceptably high. They represent not only a challenge to reaching our development goals, but will also constrain economic growth."

According to the survey, while the overall prevalence of severe acute malnutrition remains relatively low across the country for children under five years at 2.1 per cent, the rate doubles among babies between 6 and 18 months of age. This suggests inherent problems in infant feeding practices, including a lack of access to the right foods.

The rates of severe acute malnutrition found in the National Nutrition Survey translate to thousands of severely malnourished children at high risk of death in Zimbabwe.

In addition, the survey showed that only about 8 per cent of children below the age of two receive the minimum acceptable complementary foods in terms of quality and diversity. A large percentage of children in Zimbabwe reside in households without access to safe water and improved sanitation facilities, and access to health and nutrition services were also found to be poor.

Prioritizing nutrition

The Zimbabwe National Nutrition Survey, which had a sample size of nearly 40,000, was designed to provide the government and its development partners with nutrition information to drive national and sub-national level prioritization and decision making. Supported by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development with collaboration from partners including the Swedish International Development Agency, the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme, Helen Keller International and civil society, the survey will help gauge Zimbabwe's progress on the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals.

"It is high time that FNC, the coordinating body for food and nutrition analysis and response in Zimbabwe, is supported to re-invigorate its multi-stakeholder policy and action," said Acting Director of FNC George Kembo. "We must continue placing nutrition at the center of our development agenda and be guided by evidence."

At the launch, the Inclusive Government, the United Nations and their partners made a call to action, highlighting interventions necessary to combat malnutrition. Key among these is to promote exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and continued breastfeeding combined with a focus on safe, appropriate, complementary feeding.