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Press Release 00/49  

CHILD MALNUTRITION IN IRAQ 'UNACCEPTABLY HIGH' AS DROUGHT, LACK OF INVESTMENT AGGRAVATE FOOD AND NUTRITION SITUATION


Rome, 13 September 2000 --Nutritional problems remain serious in the center-south of Iraq despite some progress under the Oil-for-Food Programme, according to a joint UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) report released today. Malnutrition among children is very serious outside Baghdad and in rural areas, reflecting the effects of drought and poverty.

In contrast, the situation in the north of the country has significantly improved, acute malnutrition levels having virtually disappeared and chronic malnutrition having been reduced by half, the report says.

"Child malnutrition rates in the central and southern parts of the country do not appear to have improved significantly and nutritional problems remain serious and widespread," the report says. The indication of high levels of malnutrition explains the continuing high levels of infant and child mortality, which, according to findings by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), has more than doubled since the end of the 1980s.

"The nutritional status of school children ... is a cause for concern especially for those from rural areas and poor households. Micronutrient deficiencies are common and iron deficiency anaemia is high," the report says.

According to the report, agriculture in Iraq has deteriorated significantly in the past few years, due to two consecutive years of severe drought, a lack of investment and a shortage of essential agricultural inputs.

Cereal production this year fell to 794,000 tonnes, some 47 percent below the 1999 poor harvest and 64 percent lower than the previous five years' average, says the report. Drought conditions also drastically reduced the water resources in rivers, dams, lakes and canals, some of which have virtually dried up. As a result, prospects are unfavourable for the upcoming irrigated summer crops, vegetables and fruits. Total production of vegetables is anticipated to be about one million metric tons, some 33 percent below the 1997 level.

However, cereal imports under the UN Oil-For-Food Programme have significantly improved the food supply situation since 1997/98, the report said. In 1995/96 per person cereal consumption reached 63 percent of the 1984/85-1988/89 average. In 2000/2001, it is expected to rise to 90 percent of that level.

The mission estimated the average total daily dietary energy available per person at around 2,500 kcal which is above the World Health Organisation (WHO)-recommended intake of 2,210 kcal. However, food rations supplied under the Oil-for-Food Programme and distributed nation-wide "do not provide a nutritionally adequate and varied diet," according to the report. While rations are reasonably adequate in energy and total protein, they lack vegetables, fruit and animal products. Many households cannot afford to supplement their diet with an adequate variety of micronutrient-rich foods such as meat, milk and vegetables.

The mission also noted that more than half the adult population in Iraq is overweight. While this is not a new phenomenon to the region, it constitutes "a cause for concern, with heart disease, hypertension and diabetes the major reported causes of death in adults."

In the north of the country, where the Oil-for-Food Programme is implemented by the UN Inter-Agency Humanitarian Programme on behalf of the Government of Iraq with the participation of FAO and WFP, there have been "significant improvements in the nutritional situation." Acute malnutrition has almost been eliminated and infant and child mortality rates have fallen, largely because the region is more self-sufficient in food and receives far greater assistance per person. Additionally, focus here is given to targetted nutrition programmes, food production, growth promotion and the early detection of malnutrition among children under five.

The report points out that malnutrition is often due to factors other than insufficient food - poor water (both in quality and quantity) and poor sanitation are key causes of repeated infections resulting in infant and child malnutrition. Infections in infants are associated with the decline in breast-feeding, the early introduction of infant formula and an increase in bottle-feeding. The report calls for the maintenance and rehabilitation of the water and sanitation system as a priority for meeting basic needs as well as nutrition and health education to promote best practices in health, food and nutrition including support for breast-feeding.

The report says that the supply of pharmaceuticals in Iraq is not sufficient to meet the needs of the population and health services still remain far from adequate. Major constraints include the dilapidated infrastructure and the limited electrical power supply in hospitals and health centres. Iraq's inability to import equipment and materials to purify water has had a very damaging impact on the population's health and nutrition, especially the youngest children.

The report mentions that specific intervention programmes for improving the food, health and nutrition situation under the Oil-for-Food Programme "have either not been implemented or have suffered very slow start-ups. The Supplementary Feeding Programme recommended by the UN Secretary General in 1998 has never been implemented," the report said. "Although the ceiling in oil exports from Iraq has been removed and oil prices increased, there is no indication to date of action being taken to implement this key initiative for the benefit of malnourished children." The report urges the Iraqi government to implement the programme as soon as possible.

There are external assistance programmes outside the Oil-for-Food Programme targetting the malnourished and vulnerable segments of Iraq society. But the report notes that international donor response has been extremely weak. Donations have reached barely a quarter of the resources appealed for by agencies such as the World Food Programme for operations targeted on the most malnourished children.

While highlighting the UN's latest efforts to improve the effectiveness of the Oil-for-Food Programme, the report recommends speeding up the process for approving Oil-for-Food contracts and ensuring the timely delivery of humanitarian imports, including food and medicine. The report also recommends more inputs for the rehabilitation of agriculture, particularly seeds and materials for water conservation and irrigation management.

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FAO CONTACT

WFP CONTACT

John Riddle, Information Officer
FAO Media Relations
Telephone: (39) 06 57053259
E-mail: john.riddle@fao.org

Trevor Rowe
Chief
Public Affairs
Telephone: (39) 06 65132602
E-mail: trevor.rowe@wfp.org


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