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Malnutrition plagues Tibet’s children

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Recent studies on children’s health in Tibet reveal that almost half of them suffer from malnutrition. As a result, they suffer from stunted growth and their mental development has potentially been damaged.

In spite of the Chinese government’s insistence that the region has made economic and social progress, Tibet continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita income of less than $100. New public health and social policies are needed to ensure that children won’t continue to be the greatest victims of a difficult and unresolved political situation.

In 1996, the Western Consortium for Public Health, a private U.S.-based organization, said 60 percent of the children studied fell drastically below accepted international growth reference values and concluded that the height of Tibetan children was a matter of grave concern. Their data indicated that the children’s shortness was a result of nutritional deficiencies — chronic malnutrition during the first three years of life — rather than the consequence of genetics or altitude, as had been previously suggested.

Chronic malnutrition makes children more vulnerable to common childhood diseases such as intestinal and respiratory infections, which are frequently fatal. In addition, chronic malnutrition affects children’s neurological and physical development. Although the Chinese authorities proudly claim that they have significantly reduced Tibetan infant mortality rates, these rates are still much higher than the average in China.

The essential findings of the Western Consortium for Public Health were confirmed by a more recent study carried out by Dr. Nancy Harris — an expert on Tibet’s health issues — and researchers from the Public Health Institute in Santa Cruz, California, the University of California at Berkeley and the Tibet Medical Research Institute in Lhasa.

According to the study, conducted on 2,078 Tibetan children up to 7 years of age, stunting was linked to malnutrition and was often accompanied by bone and skin disorders, a lack of hair pigmentation, and other malnutrition-related diseases. Sixty-seven percent of the children studied also had rickets, a bone disease most frequently caused by vitamin D deficiency. The study was carried out in children from 11 counties containing more than 50 diverse urban and nonurban communities in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, or TAR. The children’s health situation is further complicated by poverty and a poorly developed health infrastructure.

In addition to nutrition and health care disadvantages, the International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet has announced that children as young as six years old are being detained in difficult conditions without charge or access to their families, and even being punished by beatings, electric shocks and other forms of torture.

Education policies planned in Beijing fail to adequately fund schools and provide qualified teachers for Tibetan children. At the same time, they suppress the Tibetan language and engage in overt practices of discrimination. As of 1995, it was reported that 30 percent of children in the TAR had received no education at all. In 1998, illiteracy in rural areas was reported to be as high as 70 percent.

Greater attention should be given to children’s health and nutritional status, following guidelines already successfully used by Dr. Harris on a limited population of Tibetan children: a rickets education and prevention program, encouragement of the use of an indigenous high-protein root called “dorma,” support for traditional Tibetan medicine, and a health care and delivery program. These measures should be complemented by strengthening the infrastructure and access of health services, as well as by policies aimed at reducing poverty and illiteracy.

The children of Tibet, too long the victims of inadequate care and attention, deserve no less.