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Tag Archives: public health in Pakistan

The first 1000 days & after: How hunger effects brain development

The crippling effects of hunger on brain development, and in turn on education, employment and quality of life, become worse if certain vitamins and nutrients are missing

The first 1000 days and after

The image of an emaciated, almost wasted, skinny child comes to mind when we talk of malnourished children — children with thin arms, protruding bellies, and light-coloured hair. Yet, the price malnourished children, their parents, and entire nations pay is far more than just what is apparent.

A malnourished child’s ruling organ, the brain, does not develop at an optimal level due to lack of sufficient nutrition. All stakeholders continue to pay the price for decades to come — both on a personal and a collective economic level. Malnourishment, then, may be the silent and neglected brain drain that no one is talking about.

According to Dr Irshad Danish, National Coordinator, Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) Civil Society Alliance, Pakistan, stunted children have 7-months delay in starting school, have lower intelligence quotient (IQ), are more likely to repeat a grade of school, complete one year less of schooling on an average, and are less likely to graduate high school.

“The effects of malnourishment include a low IQ, poor concentration, attention deficit, and memory disorders,” he says. Mentioning the findings of a report launched by the Pakistan Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Secretariat at the Ministry of Planning Development & Reform, in collaboration with the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), he adds that the consequences of malnutrition — including healthcare expenses and lower productivity — cost Pakistan US$7.6 billion, or 3 per cent of GDP, every year.

He says that children who are malnourished learn less at school and earn less when they grow up. Iron and Iodine deficiency in childhood reduces IQ by up to 25 and 13 points respectively. Cognitive deficits from childhood stunting, anemia and iodine deficiency disorders depress future adult productivity, valued at Net Present Value of $3.7 billion per year.

Brain development of the foetus starts in the womb of the mother, particularly in the third trimester, explains Dr D.S. Akram, Founder, Health, Education & Literacy Programme (HELP). “If the mother is malnourished and anemic, there are more chances that the brain growth will not be optimal as insufficient hemoglobin in the mother’s blood means insufficient oxygen for the foetus,” she says, further adding that between the age of three to six months, the baby’s brain grows rapidly, and if there are factors like a malnourished mother, premature birth of the child, or the mother not exclusively breastfeeding the child for the first six months, brain growth may slow down.

Dr Akram also says that if the child does not receive enough food as well as brain stimulus in the first two years, it may lag behind in its key developmental milestones. “When the child goes to school, his ability to perceive, to memorise, his motor skills — all will be slow. This will result in a lack of motivation in the child who will not experience the pleasure of learning. It’s a vicious cycle,” she says. For optimal brain development, according to her, it is imperative that timely introduction of a balanced diet of solid food is introduced, containing micro-nutrients, proteins and fats.

Solutions include early initiation of breastfeeding, exclusive breastfeeding for six months, starting complimentary feeding after six months, and continuing breastfeeding for two years.

Quantifying the link between brain function, academic performance and malnourishment, the Hunger in the Classroom report, 2015, by Food Bank Australia, stated that over two thirds of students who miss out on breakfast can find it difficult to concentrate (73 per cent) or can become lethargic (66 per cent), with over half experiencing learning difficulties (54 per cent) or exhibiting behavioural problems (52 per cent).

Perhaps this is why for Saeed Qureshi, the most rewarding part of his decade-long service of leading Aman Ghar (an initiative of the Aman Foundation), was working on feeding underprivileged school-going children in Karachi.

Since last year, Aman Ghar joined hands with Saylani Welfare International Trust, and meals are distributed to deserving students of 15 schools, which serves both as an incentive for children to come to school, as well as helps them perform better at school. Aman Ghar’s motto has been “food for education”.

Qureshi explains that before the inclusion of the lunch programme, the students were reported to pass out during school hours due to hunger, especially in the summers. Since the lunch programme started, there has been a significant change in the academic performance of the students. “I have seen children come to school on a hungry stomach, eating only paapay (rusks) and chai (tea) at most. Their decision power is impacted as is their ability to shine academically. They are dull and tired, and cannot participate in sports.”

Qureshi says that they mix four kinds of grains to make roti for the wraps for the children, which make up for deficiencies like iron and niacin that boost brain activity. “We have also tried to incorporate leafy vegetables, pulses, and meat in the diet,” he informs.

The crippling effects of hunger on brain development, and in turn on education, employment and quality of life, become worse if certain vitamins and nutrients are missing. Neurologic deficits can be a result of deficiencies in micronutrients like folic acid, iodine, iron, zinc, selenium, copper, magnesium, vitamins A, C, D, E, B6 and B12.

These deficiencies can result in learning disabilities, mental retardation, abnormal levels of cognitive and mental functioning, and even depression, anxiety and withdrawal, all detrimental to a child’s focus on academic activity. Malnourishment can also result in behavioural issues, and lapses in memory and concentration.

When asked how parents can avoid this happening to their children, Dr Danish says that “the first 1,000 days between pregnancy and a child’s 2nd birthday sets the life-long foundation for human capital. After two years of age, the impacts of stunting are irreversible”.

In his opinion, solutions include early initiation of breastfeeding, exclusive breastfeeding for six months, starting complimentary feeding after six months, and continuing breastfeeding for two years. Also, it is important to avoid junk foods and sugary drinks, provide diverse and nutritious balance food which should have necessary amount of proteins, vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates, and consume milk, fruits and vegetables.

“If all relevant stakeholders work together and implement joint interventions for nutrition, we can avoid bad impact of malnutrition on learning, earning and health,” says Dr Danish.


Age of the specialist – Where is the family doctor?

In search of a doctor who treats us as a whole — the one-stop shop for all ailments, both physical or mental

Age of the specialist

We all had that one family doctor. The one who always had time. The one who was always accessible. The one who had given one the first shots as a baby. The one who knew the medical history of the grandparents, the parents, the sons and daughters, and perhaps the grandchildren if the doctor lived through it all. This family doctor was the one stop shop for all ailments, both physical and mental. This doctor treated everything from arthritis to diabetes to heart disease, as well as common complains like the flu or an upset stomach.

This is the doctor who has now disappeared, is missed by many with yearning and nostalgia, and has been replaced by different ‘specialists’ for every part of the body.

The specialists’ option is both more time consuming as well as more expensive, yet it seems this is curveball advancement in healthcare thrown at patients. With more awareness and emergence of newer classifications of illnesses, it seems avoiding specialists is something impossible.

“Going to an ENT specialist for sore throat and to a cardiologist for high blood pressure may feel like getting the best care, and often it is, but the overall health is then overlooked with each specialist focusing only on their area and not the person as a whole. A well-trained family physician is capable of dealing with 90 per cent of common health problems of the individual and his/her family, and appropriately referring to specialist if needed,” says Dr Saniya Sabzwari, Geriatric Specialist at AKU.

Doctors like Dr Mohsin Ali Mustafa agree that the role of the GP is irreplaceable. “Primary care especially in the context of a patient, that is, the role of a family physician is the backbone of a healthy and functioning community. Lack of quality and mistrust of ‘GP Clinics’ in Pakistan has led to people approaching consultants as their first stop for medical needs,” he says. Dr Mustafa is the co-founder of Clinic5.

Clinic5 was established with the aim of reducing the burden of disease by providing primary care in communities, at a cost that the average Pakistani can afford. “A good family physician can treat most common ailments and even some complicated medical cases because they have a good command over not just your medical ailment but also the social and family context. This dual understanding is often missing with a specialist,” he adds.

Yasmin Elahi, a writer, is one of those patients who are not in favour of this trend of reaching out to specialists before the GP. “Doctors these days consider patients not a person but a combination of systems and organs. At 65 plus, I have some chronic health problems. Visiting a dermatologist, ENT, a pulmonologist and a rheumatologist separately, is both time and money-consuming and I often put the less pressing problem in the back seat,” she says, and points to an important and perilous side-effect of this trend: self-medication and seeking over-the-counter advice from pharmacists instead of doctors, which more and more patients have begun opting for, just to avoid the expenses as well as the long wait involved in getting an appointment with specialists.

“Nowadays specialists are not ready to listen to any complaint other than what falls in their own field. Family physicians don’t charge a lot whereas with specialists you have to pay an exorbitant amount.”

A popular career choice these days when it comes to healthcare is being a physician’s assistant (PA), world over. Its popularity is perhaps the outcome of the void being felt by patients due to a sharp recession in the importance and presence of family physicians.

Daniyal Ahmed, a 2nd year student in the US in the PA programme, sheds light on the issue. “The primary care provider (PCP), or general practitioner (GP), is meant to be the first point of contact for a patient. If you are sick, you visit your PCP; if they deem it is beyond their scope of practice, they refer you to a specialist. By eliminating that role, a large gap in patient care has been created — it puts an unreasonable burden on specialists, who are now effectively serving as PCPs in addition to their subspecialty,” he says.

In the US, according to Ahmed, a huge part of the role of PAs is in primary care. “There’s a chronic physician shortage in primary care and family medicine, largely because it doesn’t pay as well as specialties and is a relatively thankless job. PAs and NPs (Nurse Practitioners) are often hired to fill those roles that we don’t have enough physicians for.”

Dr Ambreen Iqbal’s family mostly doesn’t need to see specialists, as she is a family physician who advises them about their basic health problems. “I think family physicians are like gatekeepers who direct one to the right doctor. They have a holistic approach to patient care. Nowadays specialists are not ready to listen to any complaint other than what falls in their own field. Also, family physicians don’t charge a lot whereas with specialists you have to pay an exorbitant amount.”

“In the past, specialists were few and GPS were many. Specialists would come into the picture only when people were referred to them by their GPs; the culture of going on your own to a specialist was simply not there,” says Pervez Muslim, a Chartered Accountant who has observed closely the pros and cons of GPs and specialists as he has been treated by both, in Pakistan as well as abroad. He feels that as more and more doctors started to go abroad for specialisation and began to return to the country to practice, and due to increased awareness, people started to rely more on specialists.

“Affluence in a certain social strata further cultivated the culture of going directly to specialists. Development of better hospitals in the country made it easy for people to go to such hospitals where only specialists practice. Hence, the tide turned,” he says.

Muslim adds that in this day and age, specialisation is the name of the game in every field and profession. “Jacks of all trades are fading with the passage of time.  Their use is now restricted to those who cannot afford to pay to specialists. Unfortunately, this has also become a status symbol.”

The sentiments expressed against specialists, then, seem to be a result of two factors: Firstly, treatment from specialists is a pricier option, and often involves a battery of laboratory tests that patients who are used to GPs find hard to grapple with. The second grievance comes in the form of what seems a lack of empathy. The more a specialist is trained to treat a certain genre of illness, the more disconnected he or she seems with the other illnesses.

“I don’t believe it’s necessarily the specialists themselves who lack empathy or understanding of patients; they are meant to deal with very specific health problems,” says Ahmed.

Dr Mustafa feels that the need of the hour is for standardisation of quality at existing GP clinics and an uplift of their infrastructure so that people can trust the care being dispensed at these centres. “This makes both clinical and economic sense.”

While Dr Sabzwari agrees that the specialist mindset has fragmented care of individuals and families, she adds that it is unavoidable. “The need for specialists will always remain for complicated problems, difficult diagnoses and ailments requiring complex management.”

Thus, varied opinions notwithstanding, and much as patients may resist to the idea, it seems specialists are here to stay.

Pakistani media: Public health a blip on the media radar

ByFarahnaz Zahidi

Published: November 28, 2012

In the relentless war of ratings, media ignores health care in the country.

KARACHI: A staggering 54% of the most serious crises and shocks Pakistan has suffered in the last three years have been health-related, while only 3% have been law and order related.

This came up in a meeting on Tuesday organised by John Snow, Inc. (JSI), a public health research and consulting firm that has worked in Pakistan for over two decades to improve the quality of and access to health care systems. More than 20 hosts of morning shows and current affairs programmes sat alongside journalists on Tuesday to discuss the relationship between public health and the media.

The focus of the meet was to discuss why public health is not on the Pakistani media’s radar despite its importance. Annually, around 22,000 women die because of entirely preventable causes linked with maternal mortality and 423,000 children under the age of five die, with 100,000 deaths attributed to pneumonia alone. The dialogue led by Dr Ali and Dr Moeed Pirzada focused on ways  the media can foster debate and raise awareness about issues of public health. An anchor-person of a regional language television channel admitted that in his four years on the job, he has only hosted two programmes related to health.

“Pakistan has 60,000 villages, roughly, and only 6,000 skilled birth attendants. Do the maternal mortality rates surprise us, then?” asked Dr Nabeela Ali, chief of Party of JSI’s Technical Assistance Unit for Health (TAUH).

The participants discussed that in the relentless war of ratings, television channels and newspapers are unwilling to devote adequate space to public health. When juxtaposed with stories of celebrities going across the border or political heirs caught in scandals, the story of a woman dying in childbirth is simply not snazzy enough.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 28th, 2012.