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Better nutrition for babies and mothers key to growth, emerging countries told

Experts have called on the governments of 22 emerging economies, including the Philippines, to put more resources into early childhood and maternal care after new studies showed a bigger payoff for countries where adults enjoyed good nutrition starting from the fetal stage.

The findings were presented at the Emerging Markets Symposium attended by 50 leading medical scientists, economists, and other experts at the Green Templeton College in Oxford University last month, according to a news release.

“Emerging markets cannot expect to sustain growth, create cohesive societies or achieve political stability if they do not address festering problems of maternal and child health and poor nutrition throughout the life cycle,” said former Prime Minister of Pakistan Shaukat Aziz, who chaired the symposium.

Stronger evidence has emerged about the importance of good maternal nutrition before and during pregnancy, as well as exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life. Meanwhile, proper child care until the age of two is equally vital in a person's future physical and cognitive development.

“Children who are short for their age at 2 years are unlikely to reach their height potential and will remain short as adults. The wrong type of nutrition in this crucial 1,000-day window is also more likely to result in individuals being overweight and obese,” the press statement said.

While many emerging economies have noted a decline in maternal and child mortality as a result of national programs dealing with these problems, experts say new nutritional policies are needed to address the growing epidemics of child stunting and obesity.

“They warn that the costs of inaction are considerable as evidence emerges that very early life deficiencies in nutrition and care can have lifelong, possibly irreversible, effects on learning achievement, physical stature and earning potential. These in turn impact on longer term national prosperity and growth,” according to the news release.

Initial findings from the INTERGROWTH-21st project funded by the Gates Foundation showed that “fetal growth is determined more by the social, economic, nutritional and environmental conditions of the mother before and during pregnancy, rather than her ethnic origin.”

One study showed that poor diet in pregnancy can alter the behavior of fetal genes and influence a baby's development. These can lead to increased risks of diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease during adulthood.

Aziz and the Principal of Green Templeton College, Sir David Watson, are writing to the heads of government of the 22 countries to draw their attention to the new studies and appeal for action on improved women's nutrition and standardized health care for mothers and newborns.

The Philippines is one of four Southeast Asian countries – Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia are the others – included in the forum.

Data from the Department of Health and the National Statistics Office show that maternal deaths in the country in 2011 was much higher than in 1993 — 221 deaths per 100,000 deliveries compared to 209. This is nowhere near the 52 deaths per 100,000 deliveries target for the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

When it comes to child care, roughly one in five Filipino children from 0 to 6 years old is underweight, a sign of acute malnutrition, according to a study from the Department of Science and Technology. The reduction of the prevalence of underweight children from 20% to 13.6% by 2015 is one of the MDGs set for the Philippines. -- Yasmin Arquiza, GMA News