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Nutrition Can’t Wait: Setting the agenda for adolescent nutrition in the context of COVID-19 and beyond

  |   SUN Civil Society Network, SUN Country Network

© UNICEF/Edwards

* A blog written by Irshad Danish and Jigyasa Nawani from Nutrition International

While adolescents form one-sixth of the world’s population, adolescent nutrition remains an underrated agenda in most countries. With the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting most health and nutrition welfare services, it has affected the focus on adolescent health as well.  To discuss the agenda of adolescent nutrition in the context of COVID-19 and beyond, Nutrition International and SUN Civil Society Asia Coordination Group (ACG) organized a webinar in September, where speakers discussed the global and regional landscape of adolescent nutrition and shared some adolescent nutrition strategies that have worked well in

their countries.

Beginning the virtual discussion Anjali Bhardwaj (Ph.D), Regional Manager, Adolescent and Women’s Health and Nutrition, Nutrition International, Asia shared how adolescents’ health and nutrition have been compromised due to school closures and disrupted health services ensuing the COVID-19 outbreak. She said, “With 146 countries closing schools due to COVID-19, 60% of world’s children are not getting an education—a stark rate that we have not seen since the 1980s.” Multiple nutrition initiatives like school feeding programs and the Weekly Iron and Folic Acid Supplementation (WIFAS) have been hindered due to school closures. The need is to come up with alternative communication channels to reach adolescents. “This is also a wakeup call for policymakers and experts to devise handy solutions as we often experience a shutdown during epidemics, which keep occurring from time to time. ‘Health’ cannot be seen in isolation from ‘nutrition’, more so in the current times and nutrition literacy is definitely the need of the hour”, shared Anjali.

The webinar also witnessed discussions on case studies from Indonesia and Pakistan, where speakers shared successful adolescent nutrition strategies and best practices. Eriana Asri, Adolescent Nutrition Advisor for BISA Project, Nutrition International Indonesia presented the country’s adolescents’ nutrition status of 1 in 4 adolescent girls in Indonesia being anaemic. To address this public health issue, the Ministry of Health has revitalised the WIFAS program through which almost 81% of adolescents are receiving iron tablets through schools. While presenting the alternative measures adopted by the Indonesian government to continue the WIFAS program during the pandemic, Eriana shared, “Through constant advocacy by development agencies, WIFAS was revived. Adolescent girls were reached at their residences by village health workers and teachers to deliver iron tablets. While some schools distributed tablets in advance before the lockdown, in many areas community-based platforms were utilised for the distribution of tablets. To monitor compliance, the Ministry of Health is also developing a reporting application.”

Next, Dr. Khawaja Masuood Ahmed, National Coordinator Nutrition and National Fortification Alliance, Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations & Coordination, Government of Pakistan explained the malnutrition problems in the country and the diverse measures adopted by the government to prioritize adolescent nutrition. Pakistan suffers a triple burden of malnutrition – underweight, micronutrient malnutrition and overweight/ obesity. Some of the barriers to healthy food choices are – inaccessibility, unaffordability, inability to resist junk foods and peer pressure. Dr. Khawaja shared, “More than 50% of our adolescent girls are anaemic. We have established a multi-sectoral platform to develop health and nutrition guidelines and strategies for adolescents and shall soon be working with National Health Task Force, under the guidance of the Prime Minister, on a large-scale nutrition program to adopt the 1000+ Days approach for adolescents”. Dr. Khawaja also appreciated the pivotal role of Nutrition International, UNICEF and GAIN in supporting the government in prioritising anaemia prevention among adolescents by developing strategies, generating local evidence and piloting WIFAS in schools, integrating the Health & Education departments, and generating awareness about anaemia in the community.

Concluding the webinar, Tomoko Nishimoto, Regional Director, Nutrition International Asia said, “Everyday counts, more so during adolescence which is the most rapid and formative phases of human development after childhood. Nutrition must be integrated into every phase of the pandemic response from the very start of immediate responses and the recovery as well as the resilience building or rebuilding. The effort to tackle this challenge using community-based distribution is underway as an innovative way to turn the crisis to an opportunity. To recover from the pandemic’s devastating effects, low-cost impactful nutrition interventions that Indonesia and Pakistan have showcased should be brought to the forefront of resource allocation discussion”.

More than 600 participants joined the webinar and interacted with speakers. All panelists agreed that adolescent nutrition must remain a top priority of governments, even in the current pandemic. ‘Nutrition Can’t Wait’, especially for the torchbearers of tomorrow, was a common theme that emerged from the discussions of the day.


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