As malnutrition appears as a critical issue during this COVID-19 pandemic, experts have urged the government to take a multi-sectoral integrated approach to strengthen this aspect of health security in the country.
They also expressed concern over the rising trend of spreading the coronavirus across poor households and warned that it would badly affect the nutritional health of both children and women.
Their observations emerged from a panel discussion of a webinar titled "Food Security To Nutrition Security: How Should Bangladesh Embrace The Future?"
Innovision Consulting Private Ltd, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) Bangladesh, North South University, and the Financial Express jointly organised the virtual conference on Thursday.
The event was a part of an integrated dialogue campaign - 'The Bangladesh Miracle - Celebrating50 years of Development Progress of Bangladesh' - by Innovision Consulting.
The panel discussion and its outcome are expected to contribute to the UN Food Systems Summit 2021. GAIN is the worldwide chair for the Summit's Action Track 1 (Public Forum).
The panelists also put emphasis on taking a holistic policy approach involving improved and balanced diet as well as food fortification to ensure the required nutrition for the people.
Rudaba Khondker, Country Director for GAIN Bangladesh, delivered the welcome address while Penjani Mkambula, Global Cluster Lead, Large-Scale Food Fortification (LSFF), GAIN presented the keynote titled "A Future Fortified: Global Snapshots and Commitment Opportunities for Bangladesh".
According to the keynote, primarily 2.0 billion people in the low and middle-income countries in the world do not get enough essential vitamins and minerals.
Climate change is also resulting in a reduction in nutrients of major cereals, it added.
Hidden hunger increases vulnerability for such countries to serious health problems particularly in women and children including stunting, poor brain development, weakened immunity, anemia, and blindness, said the paper.
Meanwhile, it said, the changing climate has been posing a serious threat to food productivity across the world which might affect food availability in the future. "When demand for nutritious foods increases, supply pressure will see yields come down."
It said Bangladesh has made significant progress so far in the case of reducing malnutrition, but micronutrient deficiency is still higher as there are many challenges to ensure nutrition for women, children, adolescents to increase production of nutritious food.
The keynote said that among children between 06 and 59 months, 52.8 per cent (pc) have vitamin A deficiency, 32.5pc zinc, and 26.1pc vitamin D while 22.3pc suffer from anemia and 20.3 pc from iodine deficiency.
Among the NPNL (non-pregnant non-lactating) women aged 15-49 years, 71.3pc have vitamin D deficiency, 45.4pc have a shortage of zinc, 31pc lack necessary iodine and 30.20pc have anemia, said the paper.
Mr Penjani Mkambula said that to reduce micronutrient deficiency, an integrated approach should be taken where dietary diversification, supplementation, large scale food fortification, biofortification micronutrient powders, and disease control should be accommodated.
He said Bangladeshi people are now consuming vitamin A fortified edible oil, iodised salt and fortified rice and wheat.
Mr Mkambula gave a five-point plan for large-scale food fortification and biofortification.
He said the policy should be adopted to add vitamin D to the fortification list following severe shortage of such vitamin in Bangladesh.
Action should be taken to address anemia, zinc deficiency, governance system and monitoring for fortified food should be strengthened and to modernise the consumer market for edible oil to improve fortification quality (vitamin A).
He also put emphasis on scaling up biofortified rice production and its commercialisation.
Dr SM Mustafizur Rahman, Line Director, National Nutrition Services (NNS), Institute of Public Health Nutrition, Bangladesh said Bangladesh has achieved tremendous development considering life expectancy, fertility, child mortality, immunisation, literacy, and other many indicators in the last two decades.
He said that the country has taken the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) programme a decade back while it has many other programmes to address the malnutrition issue.
He said raising food production, managing a balanced diet and also food fortification has supported the country to reduce the percentage of stunting, wasting, underweight, etc.
But the rates are still not satisfactory considering the World Health Organisation's target.
"The country has necessary policies and action plans including all sectors to combat malnutrition issues and we are trying our level best to implement those. But the pandemic has been causing difficulties amid a decline in income of a vast population," he said.
Dr Sheikh Shahed Rahman, Chief of the party, Shuchana Part 1, Save The Children, Bangladesh also echoed that the pandemic and emergence of newer poor as a key issue needed to be addressed while combating malnutrition.
He said following the adverse impact of the pandemic on the national economy, within two to three years, Bangladesh might suffer for a long term.
It is now time to plan the public food distribution system in a new way so that the poor can access food, he said.
He said the government has been providing different packages for industry and other sectors.
The support should be long term and short term so that people can avail them when they really need it while the small farmers should be given such package facilities.
He said multi-sectoral participation and collaboration involving twenty-two concerned ministries and other relevant sectors should be combined in the programme.
Rezaul Karim, Head of Programme, World Food Programme, Bangladesh said that the public food distribution is mainly rice distribution.
He said in the last two or three years, the annual food distribution remained within 2.0 million tonnes, of which only a little the portion was wheat.
Mr Karim said that now 40,000 tonnes of nutritious biscuits were distributed to 3.0 million school-going children in Bangladesh.
Prof Dr Ahmed Hossain, Department of Public Health and director of the Global Health Institute, North South University put emphasis on collaboration of academia, research organisations, and policymakers to focus on the nutrition issue.
He also urged for publishing update data in time which is mandatory to adopt required policies.
Eddie Bearnot, Managing Director, Care Nutritions Ltd, presented a paper on 'fortified consumer packaged foods' and its gradual progress and prospects in Bangladesh.
The paper said Bangladesh's GDP has grown by 115 pc in 2017 from 2010 when its spending on snacks increased by 136 pc thus its snack consumption has outpaced its GDP growth.
Fortification of snack foods could be very instrumental to address the malnutrition issue, said Mr Bearnot.
Dr Anika Tahsin Khan, Team Leader, Adolescent Project, Innovation Consultation Private Ltd said nutrition deficiencies are much higher among the adolescents.
She said that during this age, children go through rapid mental and physical changes for which they should get special care in case of their diet.
Zaki Haider, Director of Innovation, ePower Social Enterprises Ltd argued for capacity development of nutrition officials and workers and appropriating technology.
Mandira Guha Neogi, Senior Policy Associate, GAIN Bangladesh moderated the webinar while Dr Md Abdul Alim, Member, Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA) also spoke, among others.