Innovative investment in ways to reduce child malnutrition and adult obesity in Australia’s neighbours has the potential to generate significant economic and health benefits, according to Burnet Institute Deputy Director Professor Mike Toole AM.
In a commentary for The Conversation, Professor Toole highlights the unusual ‘double burden’ in the Asia-Pacific region of overnutrition in adults and undernutrition in children.
“Of 10 countries that have the highest rates of overweight and obese adults in the world, nine are in the Pacific region,” Professor Toole observes.
“However, what is not widely known is that some of Australia’s less developed neighbours also have very high rates of child undernutrition defined by stunted linear growth: low height for a child’s age.
“Stunting is usually irreversible … and leads to poor cognitive development, weak educational outcomes and reduced employment opportunities.”
Asia-Pacific nations with very high rates of stunting include Timor-Leste (50 percent), Papua New Guinea (44 percent), Indonesia (39 percent), Solomon Islands (33 percent), and Kiribati (33 percent).
The causes are manifold including inadequate food intake, infectious diseases, lack of access to clean water and latrines, inadequate access by families to food all year round, low agricultural productivity, and gender inequalities.
Income poverty and low educational status, as well as cultural beliefs such as food taboos during pregnancy and after childbirth also play a part.
According to Professor Toole, the solution lies in a multipronged collaboration between a number of development sectors: health, agriculture, water and sanitation, education, women’s empowerment, and family planning.
“A number of studies have found that adults who had a low birthweight or were undernourished as young children are more likely to experience high blood pressure and obesity, and associated chronic diseases including diabetes and heart disease,” Professor Toole writes.
“Therefore, investments now to reduce high rates of child undernutrition in Pacific countries may have long-term benefits in adulthood.
“There could be no better target for innovation than to explore effective ways to reduce the double burden of child malnutrition and adult obesity in our less developed neighbours.”
To read Professor Toole’s commentary in full, click here.