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Malnutrition in children can be tackled by raising the national poverty threshold

Posted:  Friday, November 27, 2015

Yet another strategy to tackle India’s malnutrition conundrum! A pilot study assessing the nutritional status of children belonging to a hospital community in the Indian capital suggests the need to raise the national poverty threshold to overcome child malnutrition.

Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the pilot study involved 128 individuals (47 of whom were 5 year old children) from 3 distinct socio-economic levels represented by the families of housekeeping staff, nurses and doctors of St. Stephen’s Hospital, New Delhi. Food logs maintained by the participants were used to track their food consumption patterns.

Based on the body mass index, 38% of the children were found malnourished, 21% underweight, 17% obese and the remaining normal. Surprisingly, 80% of the children of the housekeeping staff were undernourished, while children of doctors were normally nourished and 67% (2/3rd) of the children of nurses were overweight. These results suggest a high prevalence of undernutrition in the lower income group.

A per capita monthly income of US$ 21 has been set as the poverty threshold for Indian cities. However, the wages of housekeeping staff were found to be well above the defined poverty line.

The authors offer nutritional transition (shift to high-energy diets and low physical activity) as the explanation for the higher incidence of obesity among the children of nurses. The study also reported an association between mothers’ education levels and better nutrition status. The main drawback of the study was small sample sizes. However, the researchers ensured close compliance with the maintenance of household food consumption logs for accuracy.

In the light of these findings, Jacob Puliyel, an author of the paper and head of paediatrics at St. Stephen’s Hospital suggests that since the housekeeping staff constitute the largest segment of the hospital community, “Wages have to rise much higher than the present poverty line if we are to tackle the problem of childhood undernutrition and stunting.”

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