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Health diet for moms-to-be

Pregnant women from economically challenged families in the backward areas of Bengal will be given a 1,000-day dietary supplement by the state government to battle malnutrition.

The proposal was placed before the Centre at a recent meeting. “We have identified 23 blocks where the problem of child malnutrition is the most grave,” said state family welfare officer Jyotirmoy Chaki. The Jalpaiguri tea belt, Purulia and Bankura are among the areas identified.

“In most cases, malnutrition in a child occurs because the mother is undernourished. So, a dietary boost for 1,000 days will help tackle the problem,” Chaki said.

“Pregnant women are prone to malnutrition if they are too young to bear children,” says nutritionist Moumita Patra of Via Media Health and Heal India Foundation.

According to a World Bank paper, Bengal is among the regions where malnutrition is above average. The state also has a considerably higher rural-urban divide.

National Family Health Survey reports of 2005-06 revealed that 41.8 per cent of children below three years were stunted in Bengal and 37.6 per cent of them underweight.

Only 58.6 per cent of children below five months are exclusively breastfed in the state. “In rural areas, malnutrition usually surfaces in children below three years because most parents are not aware what to feed their children after six months. The concept of a balanced diet is alien to them. The child is often fed only barley and cow milk,” Chaki said.

A consulting physician in the city, Rajeev Seal, says six in every 100 children die of malnutrition in Bengal. “The condition is common among lower income groups or families below poverty line. When there are so many children in a family, the pregnant woman and the child, especially if it is a girl, are neglected,” he said.

The state at present has 10 nutrition rehabilitation centres and there will be 35 more by next year. But few turn up for treatment. “Malnutrition is treated in three phases. It takes time and not many complete the process,” Seal said.

Feeding an undernourished child a lot at once can even cause death and so the first or rehydration phase comprises therapeutic feeding. “The body is fortified with the right kind of minerals. We don’t want the child to gain weight at this phase,” Seal said.

In the second or transitional phase, the child is given a specially made milk formula recommended by WHO and in the third phase a fortified milk powder. Weight gain is monitored in the third phase.

The Sunderbans is among the worst-affected. According to research carried out by the Institute of Health Management Research under Future Health System in 2010, 52 per cent of children in the Sunderbans are stunted — higher than the state (45 per cent) and national (48 per cent) average.

“In the Sunderbans, the problem is aggravated by natural disasters such as Aila. People robbed of their home can hardly afford proper nourishment for their children,” said Barun Kanjilal of the institute.

Doctors say the need of the hour is to make women aware, improve public health services and ensure better hygiene.