Malnutrition in Timor-Leste

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DILI, Timor-Leste — The small coastal island of Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, is well known for its abundance of unique marine life and its relatively new status as an independent nation. Gaining independence from Portugal and other nations after centuries of colonial rule and civil war, Timor-Leste became independent in 2002. However, independence has not come without its struggles, and unfortunately, poverty, malnutrition and access to health care remain prevalent struggles for the Timorese.

Timor-Leste remains one of the world’s hardest hit countries by chronic malnutrition. The latest data suggests that 58.1 percent of children are stunted as a result of malnutrition, and the infant mortality rate stands at 48 percent. At least 44 percent are moderately or severely overweight, and one third of children under the age of 5 and one third of all women suffer from anemia.

Timor-Leste’s National Nutritional Strategy has tried to determine what exactly the root cause of undernourishment in the country is. The strategy shows that malnutrition in Timor-Leste is a result of not one specific issue, but a combination of many. Below are a host of factors contributing to malnutrition in Timor-Leste

According to the National Nutrition Strategy of Timor-Leste, these factors include: “extreme poverty, low agricultural productivity, overemphasis on staple foods (especially rice), poor health services, lack of clean water, inadequate sanitation and hygiene, poor access to health services, low public investment and capacity in nutrition, insufficient public knowledge of what is good nutrition and the consequences of under-nutrition, and a plethora of “traditional” or “cultural” attitudes and beliefs and taboos around certain foods and eating practices.”

Timor Leste’s Ministry of Health has also attributed it to the lack of dietary diversity, inadequate protein intake and a lack of access to essential, basic food items. Many women, especially mothers, lack access to or cannot afford foods high in protein, like beef, fish, chicken, eggs and fruit.

Though these factors seem overwhelming, interventions on behalf of Timor Leste’s government have made an impact on reducing malnutrition. Between 2010 and 2013, malnutrition was reduced by 6.6 percentage points, dropping from 44.7 percent to 38.1 percent.

The Ministry of Health said, “Data shows a reduction of about 11 percent (from 49 percent in 2010 to 38 percent in 2013) in chronic malnutrition rate in children aged 0 to 23 months and about 6.7 percent of reduction in chronicle malnutrition rate in children of the same age, relatively to the results of the Demographic Health Study (from 18.6 percent in 2010 to 11.9 percent in 2013).”

The World Bank has also contributed to malnutrition reduction efforts with the Community Driven Nutrition Improvement Project, a four year pilot project launched in 2014. This project aims to improve nutrition practices for children under the age of two, pregnant women and women who are lactating. Since the first 1,000 days of a child’s life is significant to adequate nutrition over the course of their lifetime, mothers are being taught useful nutritional practices and eating habits that will benefit their children. The Community Driven Nutrition Improvement Project is estimated to have benefited 4,470 children under the age of 2 and 5,503 lactating and pregnant women.

Candice Hughes

Sources: HIAM Health, Government of Timor Leste, Timor Leste Strategic Development Plan, UNICEF, World Bank, WHO
Photo: Flickr

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Candice Hughes

Candice is from Las Vegas, Nevada. She graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a BA in English Literature. Candice thoroughly enjoys humor in its many forms, and has a secret obsession with Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

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