Primary school children in Aceh and Nias suffer from insufficient nutrition, inadequate health care and poor hygiene, provoking widespread parasitic infections and resulting in stunted physical growth and retarded intellectual development.
The picture is quite concerning. Health and nutrition related morbidity—the incidence of disease—is high
Charlie Higgins, WFP Area Coordinator
Those are the main findings of a groundbreaking study, financed by WFP, that provides the first comprehensive picture of the health and nutritional status of children in the primary school systems of Aceh and Nias, where WFP has been operating relief and recovery programmes to aid victims of the tsunami that struck Aceh in December, 2004, and subsequent earthquake that rocked Nias in March, 2005.
The study, released this week, was conducted during March and April, 2006, by the University of Indonesia in collaboration with the Indonesian-based SEAMEO-TROPMED Regional Center for Community Nutrition, an arm of the Southeast Asia Ministries of Education Organization.
It provides WFP with the baseline data needed to maximise the benefits of the agency’s school feeding programme, which currently reaches some 300,000 primary school children in Aceh and Nias.
“The findings will help us fine tune our school feeding programme to ensure that children’s diets are supplemented with the right nutrients,” said Charlie Higgins, WFP Area Coordinator.
Worms and parasites
“It also provides the information we need to work with our government partners and agencies like UNICEF and PMI (the Indonesian Red Cross) in supplying health additives to combat scourges such as worms and other parasites.”
In conducting the study, researchers surveyed a total of 1,920 children in 80 separate schools – 1,440 children in 60 schools in eight of Aceh’s school districts and another 480 children in 20 schools in both of the two districts on the island of Nias.
“The picture is quite concerning. Health and nutrition related morbidity—the incidence of disease—is high,” said Higgins.
Among the more serious of the problems the survey identified was the prevalence of stunted growth among school children: 27 per cent in Aceh and 36 per cent in Nias.
Both places also registered significant numbers of underweight children: 21 per cent in Aceh, 22 per cent in Nias.
Low cognitive performance among schoolchildren is also a problem in both places, though it is more alarming in Nias, with 40 per cent of those surveyed demonstrating low cognitive performance, than in Aceh, where the rate was 20 per cent.
In Aceh, the rate of malnourishment ranged from a mild to a major public health problem, with moderate rates of anemia, (27 per cent), and Vitamin-A micronutrient deficiency, (17 per cent).
But it is a major concern in Nias, where 28 per cent of children are malnourished and 33 per cent micronutrient-deficient.
Parasitic infections are widespread in both areas, with 53 per cent of Aceh children afflicted by worm infestations and a staggering 75 per cent in Nias. Malarial infections were also very high in Nias, (46 per cent), but less so in Aceh, (12 per cent).
“The statistics confirm the need for de-worming all primary schoolchildren,” said Higgins, noting that WFP would soon join forces with local health authorities as well as UNICEF and PMI to launch a new anti-worm campaign in the schools.
Poor personal hygiene is also a major concern, according to the study, which found a high incidence of untreated skin diseases among schoolchildren.
Lack of adequate sanitation facilities aggravates the problem, especially in Nias, where two-thirds of the schools surveyed had no latrines.
Similarly, none of Nias’ schools had functioning school health units, while only one-third of the schools in Aceh were equipped.
Higgins said the study’s findings underscore the effectiveness of WFP’s school feeding programme, which addresses nutrition-related problems by providing schoolchildren with a mid-morning snack of biscuits fortified with nine essential vitamins and five key minerals.
“But the key message we need to absorb,” Higgins continued, “is that for all these efforts to be sustainable in the longer term, the government needs to revitalise the school health units.”
WFP Country Director Mohamed Saleheen welcomed the new study, noting that all stakeholders “now have the data needed to plan and implement health, feeding and nutrition programmes on the basis of an integrated approach.”