Press Release
July 8, 2010

Philippine Association of Nutrition
63rd Annual Convention
8 July 2010, EDSA Shangri-la Hotel

Theme: "Safeguarding the Nutrition of Infants and Children"
Senator Edgardo J. Angara
Keynote Speaker

A report by a US-based global humanitarian organization Save the Children revealed that only a third of Filipino children under the age of 5 get basic health care, making the country one of the worst places for infants and mothers.

Children born in the Philippines are three times more vulnerable to disease and death than their well-off counterparts because they are more likely to go without essential health care. The country's survival rate is comparable to the infant mortality rates of black infants in the US states of Michigan, Delaware and Wisconsin, where a black baby is over three times more likely to die compared with a white baby.

The report said that 26,000 Filipino children under the age of 5 could be saved each year, if we are able to bridge the continuing disparity between the health care received by a rich child and a poor child.

Poor families usually forego health care and use their meager resources to put food on the table. And with food taking up about two-thirds of a poor family's income amidst soaring food prices, it is no wonder that they are unable to afford even basic health care for their children: a national government survey indicates that 3 out of 10 children below two years old have not received the recommended vaccinations. Full vaccination rate has likewise declined.

Nourishing the young

The theme of this year's conference is "Safeguarding the nutrition of infants and children." Incidentally, this is a subject close to my heart and is a current advocacy of mine.

Malnutrition affects an alarmingly vast number of Filipino children. The 2003 National Nutrition survey showed that 2.9 million primary school-age children were underweight, while 3.41 million were growth-stunted. The prevalence of anemia among children has also escalated in the last ten years, along with vitamin A deficiency.

The greater problem of hunger and malnutrition, especially among children, is that it ultimately leads to stunted mental and physical growth, poor comprehension and lower performance in school.

Over the last few years, I have designed and initiated health programs that specifically target this problem.

In 2002, I launched a pilot School Feeding Program (SFP) called Kalusugan ng Bata, Karunungan ng Bayan (K & K) in public elementary schools around the country, selected on the basis of the National Nutrition Survey. It was conducted on a 120-day cycle, where milk and noodles fortified with egg were distributed to schoolchildren from grade levels 1, 2 and 3.

Before each feeding cycle, the pupils' weight and height were measured by the school nurses. They also underwent a de-worming program. These children, aged 7-9, are at their most important mental and physical development stage. After each cycle, the students are evaluated by both teachers and school nurses.

The program saw spectacular improvements in attendance, learning capabilities, academic performance, weight, height, overall nutritional status, as well as the reduction of drop-out rates among beneficiaries.

To date, over 25,000 pupils from the NCR and provincial schools in Abra, Aurora, Benguet, Ilocos Norte and Iloilo have benefited from K&K. It is surprising how just a little investment - P9.00 for a serving of fresh milk and P5.50 for a bowl of noodles - can make a big difference. The school feeding program has cut by half the drop out rate in participating schools, reduced the incidence of protein energy malnutrition by 80%, lowered the incidence of iron-deficiency anemia by 90% and completely eliminated iodine deficiency.

Building on the success of K&K, I recently setup the Nutrition, Health and Early Childhood Development Program, in an effort to meet Millennium Development Goals No. 4 and 5: Reducing Infant and Maternal Mortality.

Studies show that the benefits of investing in childcare and pre-school learning could be greater than investing in education at later ages. This is because a significant part of cognitive and non-cognitive skills development occurs before children start school. Early education and good health are proven ways to put children ahead in life.

The choice for children under five (5) was not random. There are eleven million children under five (5) years of age, and one in five are underweight. Only 20 % have access to day care or pre school services, especially as many of our children and their mothers belong to the disadvantaged sector.

Led by a team of experts, the project was launched in Aurora with the hope of bringing it to the different regions of the country. We have implemented a Zinc Supplementation program after experts found deficiency signs of this essential mineral among children in the province. The team also found a pressing need for emergency obstetric care to reduce maternal deaths, an alarming nutrition deficiency among mothers and children, and the absence of early infant stimulation programs.

But there is another problem that needs to be addressed with utmost urgency. "Hidden hunger", or vitamin and mineral deficiency, is the most widespread cause of malnutrition in the world today. Micronutrient deficiency strikes at the core of one's health and vitality.

In response, I will soon be launching my newest health program: a massive awareness campaign against hidden hunger. Eating vitamin- and mineral-rich vegetables is found to be the most sound and cost-effective solution to this stealthy, silent killer.

OMG or Oh My Gulay! is a call-to-action to address the problem of hidden hunger. It is a simple, powerful, and urgent message that teaches kids, in an accessible and fun way, about the health benefits of eating vegetables. The campaign includes print, music, TV, DVD and online media, tapping popular artists as endorsers.

By nurturing Filipino children's life chances they may turn into productive members of society - helping the country to grow and escape poverty.

Reforming the health sector

In The Conscience of A Liberal, Paul Krugman said that universal health care is the bridge that will finally close the wealth and income gap in the US. A nation's health and health care delivery system is central to achieving equality.

The same is true in the Philippines. A universal health care system will be one of the most effective means to bridge the deep chasm between the rich and the poor. This we can address in the legislative front.

In the Senate, I propose a mandatory health insurance program for Filipino children of low-income families through the establishment of a Children's Health Insurance Program or CHIP.

CHIP will complement the existing PhilHealth, which I authored in 1995. It will provide children with a full range of health services like regular checkups, immunization, prescription drugs, laboratory tests, X-rays, hospital and clinic visits, medical equipment, even dental and eye care.

Under the present PhilHealth Act, all senior citizens, including indigents, are provided with access to health services. But with the proposed CHIP, the country's health services would now also cover children under the age of 5, rescuing one of the most uninsured members of our population from a health crisis.

I am also pushing for the Child Nutrition Act of the Philippines, which will institutionalize and provide funds for a School Feeding Program throughout the Philippine public elementary school network. It will also provide incentives to private companies donating food, milk, and juice to the School Feeding Program.

Finally, we have to ensure the key elements of our health system -- health care delivery, human resources, health education institutions, research and development, and financing of health care -- come together and move in sync to save lives, prevent and cure illnesses, and enhance our wellbeing.

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