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Armenia's Child Nutrition Challenge

Health ministry plans new strategy to tackle high rates of malnourishment among under-fives.
  • Dr Asya Mardanyan, head of the family medicine centre in Tavush region. (Photo: Lilit Arakelyan)
    Dr Asya Mardanyan, head of the family medicine centre in Tavush region. (Photo: Lilit Arakelyan)

Almost a fifth of children under the age of five in Armenia suffer from restricted growth because of malnutrition, and public health experts say things are getting worse rather than better.

The last comprehensive national survey was conducted in 2010 and showed that 19 per cent of under-fives had signs of restricted growth. The figure was worse for rural parts of Armenia, at 22 per cent compared with 17 per cent in urban centres.

Health experts blame widespread poverty in Armenia, but also argue that parents are not always aware of proper nutrition.

The national statistics agency says that about a million people – nearly a third of the population – were living below the poverty line in 2012.

A study by the Fund for Armenian Relief conducted in 2013 showed that 16 per cent of children aged under six in the northeastern Tavush region had restricted growth, and 19 per cent had anaemia.

Dr Asya Mardanyan, who heads a family medicine centre and looks after three villages in Tavush region, told IWPR that the children she saw were generally undernourished, with anaemia in one out of every five cases.

“The rate of anaemia among children is huge…. haemoglobin levels remain low for up to two or three years,” she said. “It’s entirely a result of people being badly-off. They don’t have the money to buy meat and dairy products. That’s why children are so poorly nourished.”

Hambardzum Simonyan is coordinating a nutrition programme for 250 families in Tavush for the Fund for Armenian Relief, said this region presented particular problems since it had higher-than-average levels of emigration and was blocked on one side by the border with Azerbaijan.

“It’s very important to prevent malnutrition during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life – i.e. the nine months of pregnancy plus the first two years,” Simonyan said. “It’s essential to provide the child with nutrition, otherwise irreparable damage will occur.”

Svetlana Smbatyan, from the village of Tavush, found out that her six-year-old daughter was anaemic after taking her to a doctor.

“She felt weak all the time. She was falling asleep and she was always tired. The doctor said low levels of haemoglobin were to blame, and prescribed polyvitamins. I’ve been trying to raise my daughter’s haemoglobin levels through a good diet,” Smbatyan said.

She said her husband’s army pay of 365 US dollars a month was barely enough to feed her and their three children.

“I can only afford meat once a month, to feed children who need food that’s rich in iron. And I need to economise on dairy products too, so we buy them just twice a month,” she said.

Liana Hovakimyan, who heads a healthcare and nutrition programme for the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF, said malnutrition was a complex problem that required a range of responses.

“The problem of chronic childhood malnutrition in Armenia is gradually getting worse, so our integrated programme is mainly aimed at promoting breastfeeding, ensuring the correct and timely use of dietary supplements for children, improving the knowledge and counselling skills of health workers, and raising awareness among parents with regards to baby food,” she told IWPR.

Armenia’s health ministry recognises the gravity of the problem and has drawn up a programme designed to improve childhood nutrition.

“There’s a lot left to do. We need to invest money effectively and coordinate our efforts,” Karine Saribekyan, head of the health ministry’s mother and child department, told IWPR. “The new government programme acknowledges that the mother-and-child health is a major problem, and one aspect of the programme focuses on child nutrition.”

Saribekyan said the ministry planned to seek government approval for a “strategic plan for improving children’s nourishment”.

Lilit Arakelyan is a reporter for the Araratnews.am website in Armenia.

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