East Timor: UN report confirms serious nutrition problems in country

East Timor has some of the worst nutrition indicators, especially among children and women of maternal age, in the entire South East Asia and Pacific region, according to a new United Nations report.

The report, released on Thursday and produced by several UN agencies, shows that the incidence of malnutrition is over 40% in East Timor, the highest in South East Asia and the third highest in all of Asia, only below North Korea and Afghanistan.

The data are part of the report “Asia Pacific Regional Analysis on Food Security and Nutrition 2020: Mother and Child Diets at the Centre for Nutrition Improvement” published jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organisation.

In the study, East Timor registers the second highest rate of child debilitation or ‘wasting’ (children under five who are underweight for their height, reflecting acute malnutrition), dwarfism or stunting (children under five who are underweight for their age, reflecting chronic malnutrition), conditions that affect 57% of Timorese children under five, below only Papua New Guinea’s figures (66%).

In terms of dwarfism, East Timor has the highest figure of all the countries analysed, with a “very high prevalence”, above 50% among children under five years of age.

The graphs where East Timor scores best are on child obesity, with only 1.6% one of the lowest in the entire region.

Yet the report shows that obesity among the adult population has doubled from 10 to over 20% since 2000.

The report estimates that, globally, “around 350.6 million people in the Asia-Pacific region or 51% of the total were undernourished in 2019” with child debilitation reaching 74.5 million children under five and dwarfism reaching 31.5 million.

The situation worsened, according to the study, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, “affecting the food conditions of almost two billion people in the region who even before the pandemic had no money to pay for healthy diets”.

“Estimates point to a 14.3% increase in the prevalence of moderate or severe child debilitation in children under five years of age, which is equivalent to an additional 6.7 million children, due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” it says.

The report also looks at the nutrition of children between 6 and 23 months, based on three criteria: Minimum Food Diversity (MDD), Minimum Meal Frequency (MMF) and Minimum Acceptable Diet (MAD).

In the case of East Timor only 13.3% of children have a minimally acceptable diet, only 27.6% achieve a minimally varied diet and less than half, 45.6% have a minimum meal frequency.

The data shows that the situation varies between rural areas of the country, with an MDD rate of 41% in urban areas versus only 23% in rural areas. In the case of the MMF, East Timor has one of the worst indicators in the region, with only 53% of children in urban areas and 43% in rural areas reaching this target.

As for the consumption of eggs and fresh food by children aged 6 and 23 months, the data shows that only 46.2% of children do so in East Timor, well below the 75% average in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The percentage of children in this age group who do not eat fresh fruit or vegetables in East Timor is 35.1%, still above the average of 23% in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The data also indicate that in East Timor the percentage of children under six months of age who are exclusively breastfed is 44%, which is 14 points above the average for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Of these breastfed children, about 62.4% still do so until the first year of life.

The report also notes an increase in the prevalence of anaemia among women of reproductive age from about 35% to over 40% since 2000. In the case of children under five, the situation has worsened significantly from less than 40% in 2000 to more than 60% in 2016, the highest figure of all countries in that year.

The study also points to the high costs for some age groups of an adequately nutritious diet.

As an example, data from Baucau, the second Timorese city, where the cost per adolescent per day is USD 2.45, three and a half times the average cost for adults

The percentage of families in East Timor that cannot afford a properly nutritious diet exceeds 63%, according to the report.

East Timor still has the second lowest rate of vitamin supplements for children aged six to 59 months – only 66% – below the 62% in neighbouring Indonesia.