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El Nano plays havoc in South Pacific

New Zealand, Saturday, May 21, 2016:

The El Niño weather pattern responsible for New Zealand’s unseasonably warm temperatures has had devastating effects on the child health of our Pacific Island neighbours.

Alarmingly, the Pacific has some of the highest child undernutrition rates in the world, with stunting rates in Vanuatu at 28.5%.

These high under nutrition rates pose a major impediment to human and economic development in the region, according to pharmaceutical company GSK’s Dr Lisa Bonadonna, who is visiting New Zealand this week to raise awareness of the issue.

Catastrophic effects

Dr Bonadonna said that the catastrophic effects of El Niño are causing a rise in rates of malnutrition – the single biggest contributor to child mortality – in the Pacific.

She said that the weather pattern has significantly reduced rainfall in the Pacific, and affected the availability of food in places like Vanuatu.

Dr Bonadonna heads a cooperative between charity organisation ‘Save the Children’ and GSK to provide nutrition and support for children impacted by this growing crisis.

One of the first initiatives GSK has supported has been the establishment of ‘The Save the Children Emergency Health Unit,’ a mobile health facility on the southern island of Tanna in Vanuatu, one of the island’s worst affected areas by Cyclone Pam in 2015.

Malnutrition among children

She said that the unit is now responsible for screening hundreds of children for malnutrition, and could be deployed following future disasters like cyclones

“The Pacific has some of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world, posing a major impediment to development across the region.

“We are working to help combat this by identifying cases of acute malnutrition and providing other support in Vanuatu,” she said.

Dr Bonadonna, who recently visited Vanuatu, said that aid had a tremendous impact on communities in need, and must be sustained in the future.

“Malnutrition in 2016 is unacceptable. No child’s survival or development should be threatened by a condition that is entirely preventable,” she said.

Unhealthy future

Dr Bonadonna said that undernutrition in childhood can cause permanent and irreversible impairment of the brain, nervous system and other physical functions.

The most crucial time to meet a child’s nutritional requirements is in the first 1000 days of their life: from conception up to their second birthday.

A lack of protein, energy and essential nutrients (e.g. iron, iodine, zinc, folate and Vitamin B12) during this critical period affects the structural and functional development of the brain, including the functions required for memory, speech production, learning and motor skills.

“This has life-long consequences for a child’s educational attainment, productivity and income-earning prospects. These individual losses translate into reduced economic growth at the macro level, perpetuating poverty across generations,” she said.

Dr Bonadonna hoped that the new Emergency Health Unit will go some way in addressing the immediate needs of those children most at risk.

Save the Children New Zealand Chief Executive Heather Hayden said that the recent collaboration with GSK is already making a difference.

“The potential of the GSK partnership is truly heartening. It allows us to shine a spotlight on the plight of our closest neighbours. We are excited to establish this emergency unit and look forward to improving conditions and saving the lives of children in the Pacific,” she said.

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