Malnutrition costs the Cambodian economy an estimated $266 million each year, according to a new report, which urged the government to invest more in tackling the problem.
Stunting was responsible for most of the cost, at $120 million, while iodine deficiency set the economy back $57 million, according to the authors of the report, titled The Economic Burden of Malnutrition in Pregnant Women and Children under 5 Years of Age in Cambodia and published in science journal Nutrients on Saturday.
The report estimated the cost of lost productivity in the workforce as a result of malnutrition-related child deaths, reduced physical and cognitive ability and preventable health care expenses.
“This economic burden [1.7 per cent of GDP] is too high in view of Cambodia’s efforts to drive economic development,” the report stated. “The government should rapidly expand a range of low-cost effective nutrition interventions to break the current cycle of increased mortality, poor health and ultimately lower work performance, productivity, and earnings.”
Report co-author Frank Wieringa, from the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement in Phnom Penh, said yesterday that the “enormous” hip-pocket impact should prompt the government to invest more in nutritional health.
“It’s a good investment because each child who would otherwise die or become stunted . . . 20 years from now, they will contribute more to the Cambodian economy; they will earn more,” he said.
Suboptimal breastfeeding and malnutrition in mothers were also factors, accounting for $36.9 million, which Wieringa said pointed to an intergenerational cycle of poor nutrition.
Other nutrient deficiencies – such as iron, zinc and vitamin A – cost $32.6 million, while instances of children being underweight (a low weight for their age) and wasting (a low weight for their height) cost just shy of $20 million.
Action Against Hunger (AAH) country director Jean Luc Lambert said the situation in Preah Vihear province was “alarming”, with separate AAH research finding 35 per cent of children under 5 were chronically undernourished, which could “destroy their potential”.
“Stunted children are more likely to have poorer cognitive and educational outcomes into adolescence. They are more likely to become less productive adults, and less able to contribute to their nation’s growth,” he said.
He said swift action between conception and the age of 2 was key, because after the age of 5, stunting could become irreversible.
Nutritious, therapeutic food should be available at all health centres, he said.
Iman Morooka, a spokesperson for UNICEF, which contributed to the report, said malnutrition in Cambodian children remained “a major concern”.
“Child malnutrition is caused by several factors including insufficient nutritious food intake, use of unsafe water, lack of proper toilets and unhygienic conditions which lead to exposure to diseases such as diarrhea, and lack of proper feeding practices at home,” Morooka said.
Ministry of Health director general Dr Or Vandine declined to comment yesterday as she had not seen the report.