Experts fear rise in child malnutrition due to Karnataka govt inaction

Recently Vani Vilas Hospital in Bengaluru saw around 30 children admitted at their Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre for malnutrition.
School Children
School Children

Public health experts in Karnataka are worried that many children of lower socio-economic populations in the state could have malnutrition symptoms and related ailments in the coming months. This, due to the reduction in government’s efforts to provide nutrition during the COVID-19 induced lockdown and subsequent economic distress, which, experts fear, could undo improvements in children’s nutrition made in the last decade.

As reported by TNM earlier, the state government had issued an order at the beginning of November to distribute dry ration kits pending since June to students studying in government and aided schools. From June to October, lakhs of students in the state were deprived of the food they would otherwise receive through the mid-day meal scheme. Activists have also pointed out that the Ksheera Bhagya Scheme under which milk was given to school children was also withdrawn with the onset of the pandemic. This, at a time when milk powder is rotting in government godowns, public health experts say. 

Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a public health researcher who was conducting a health camp in Lingarajapuram in Bengaluru in the last week of November, found a nine-year-old girl child having phrynoderma or "toad skin" disease. The disease is associated with a deficiency of vitamin A or essential fatty acids. 

Health experts and activists have been writing to the government to take proactive steps to help disadvantaged populations with their nutrition needs since the first lockdown.

Dr Sylivia said, “Before the pandemic, school-going children in Karnataka’s government schools were getting Vitamin A drops every six months along with a deworming tablet. During the lockdown period – since mid-march till now – the schools have remained closed and there have been no such activities for the children. There is no drive from the government to check for or bridge nutrition gaps at the community level.”

She added, “A girl suffering from phrynoderma shows the extent of malnutrition as no one will have isolated deficiency of Vitamin A. The child is likely to have protein, minerals and vitamin deficiencies. So, while my camp was mostly for senior citizens, I was getting children with symptoms of malnutrition. This is happening as many underprivileged children are having only rice and pickle or with little lentil and no other nutritious food. It is not that before the lockdown we had great nutrition levels, but the pandemic has worsened a bad situation.”

She said that experts and activists like her fear that in the coming months, malnutrition-related diseases which had been under control for some years now will again resurface. “Ailments like scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) and rickets (vitamin D deficiency) are likely to come back, apart from the risk of respiratory illness and diarrhoea in undernourished children.”

Bengaluru-based independent researcher Siddharth Joshi, who is part of food rights organisation Ahara Namma Hakku, filed an RTI that found that students were not provided any midday meals and dry rations in the state. He said that although the problem is there, the true extent can only be determined through large scale surveys which the government may not be keen to carry out.

He said, “Other than the midday meal scheme, the functioning of anganwadis has also been largely affected by the pandemic and resultant lockdowns. While the anganwadi activities did not completely shut down, there are issues involving lack of volunteers. So, the monitoring is not happening as it used to be. Earlier children were weighed every month, along with a need-based follow up where they were taken to the primary health care centre and so on. This process has been affected quite a lot across Karnataka.”

He added, “A portal that was started to keep a tab of growth of children between 6 months to 12 months has been down for a long time now. In any centre, the exercise of recording weight and height of children has not been done.”

Siddharth pointed out that dry rations are a poor substitute for cooked meals. “The Union government has asked state governments to consider reopening anganwadis from November 11 but the state government is yet to take a decision on this.”

Dr Sylvia and her colleagues’ fears are not unfounded. 

Recently Vani Vilas Hospital within the Victoria Hospital campus saw close to 30 children admitted at their Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre and nearly 100 others who were found to be suffering from severe acute and moderate acute malnutrition.

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