BEIJING, 7 March 2005 - Malnutrition rates among children in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea have declined in the past two years but remain relatively high, according to a new survey. UN agencies announcing the findings today said that substantial, well-targeted international assistance must be sustained to build on the gains.
The large-scale, random sample survey covered both child and maternal nutrition and was carried out last October by the government's Central Bureau of Statistics and Institute of Child Nutrition, in collaboration with UNICEF and the World Food Programme.
The survey assessed 4,800 children under six years of age and 2,109 mothers with children under two across seven of the DPRK's nine provinces and in the capital, Pyongyang.
The two UN agencies said that although the new assessment is not strictly comparable with the previous survey conducted in October 2002, positive trends are apparent:
the proportion of young children chronically malnourished, or stunted (height-for-age), has fallen from 42 percent to 37 percent; and
acute malnutrition, or wasting (weight-for-height), has declined from 9 percent to 7 percent.
WFP and UNICEF attributed the improvements in part to the significant levels of support provided by the international community in recent years.
"These results are encouraging, and show that the balanced rations and fortified foods we provide to millions of the most vulnerable are helping," Richard Ragan, WFP Country Director for the DPRK, told a news conference in Beijing.
While the proportion of children under six found to be underweight (weight-for-age) increased from 21 percent to 23 percent, the rate among 1-2 year olds - the most nutritionally vulnerable group - fell from 25 percent to 21 percent.
Childhood malnutrition rates varied significantly by region, with the highest levels recorded in the more food-insecure northern provinces, and the lowest in the relatively fertile and better-off south, especially Pyongyang.
WFP, which supports 6.5 million North Koreans, provides a full ration of cereals and foods enriched with micronutrients by UNICEF to pregnant and nursing women, nursery and kindergarten children. Primary school children are given a daily supplement of fortified biscuits and school children in urban areas receive a take-home cereal ration.
Some one-third of mothers were found to be malnourished and anaemic, which are key factors contributing to child malnutrition. This is an area of concern, as it indicates no progress over the past two years.
"The health and nutritional status of North Korean mothers inevitably determines that of their children, and are crucial to breaking the vicious cycle of impaired growth," said Pierrette Vu Thi, UNICEF's Representative in the DPRK.
Child feeding practices are likewise important. While breast milk is the best and safest food for infants, fully satisfying their nutritional needs for the first six months, the survey found that only two-thirds of those up to that age were exclusively breastfed. Less than one-third of infants in the 6-9 month age group were given complementary foods, when all should have been, in accordance with international standards.
One in five children surveyed suffered from diarrhoea during the two weeks prior to data collection, and 12 percent had symptoms of acute respiratory infection. The survey revealed a number of highly prevalent childhood diseases that combine with malnutrition to put children's lives at risk.
With the proportions of stunted and underweight children still "high" by World Health Organisation criteria, and no improvement in the nutritional status of mothers since the 2002 survey, much work remains to be done, UNICEF and WFP said.
They urged continued international food and other assistance for the DPRK, and pledged to expand targeted programmes in favour of specific vulnerable groups, including young children and women of reproductive age.
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