New Delhi: Last week, a meeting was held by a group of experts to discuss setting indigenous growth standards for children, amid concerns that the weight and height references recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) may not be suitable in the Indian context.
According to the Times of India, the meeting was led by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) director general Dr Rajiv Bahl and NITI Aayog member Dr. V.K. Paul.
The growth standards currently being used in India are part of the Multicentric Growth Reference Study (MGRS) of the WHO.
In December last year, moneycontrol reported that the health ministry had directed ICMR to develop ‘Indian’ standards for stunting in kids aged 0-18.
The ICMR had constituted a 14-member committee for this purpose.
“The move comes following an understanding through several studies that growth patterns in kids are influenced by genetics as well as environmental factors,” a senior health ministry official had told the news outlet.
The official had said that adopting WHO charts on Indian kids may not have been appropriate as it has been developed mainly taking environmental factors into account rather than genetics.
However, many public health researchers and paediatricians, according to TOI, have raised concerns over the use of lower growth standards saying it would suggest that Indian children have a low genetic potential, and therefore, stunting in them would not require interventions.
If a lower standard of height for a particular age is set for Indian children, the proportion of stunted children would come down, without any nutritional or health interventions, or any efforts to improve the living conditions of children, the TOI report said.
A working paper released by the Economic Advisory Council to the PM (EAC-PM) estimated that setting new growth standards would bring down the proportion of stunted children under five years of age from 36% to about 24%.
And childhood stunting is one of the malnutrition indicators which makes it way to the Global Hunger Index and Sustainable Development Goals.
Three important indicators – stunting (low height for age), wasting (low weight for height), and underweight (low weight) – are used to assess the prevalence of different forms of undernutrition in a population.
In 2022, India ranked 107 out of 121 countries on the Global Hunger Index in which it fared worse than all countries in South Asia barring Afghanistan.
India also recorded the highest child wasting rate in the world.
The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) of 2019-21 showed that 36% of children under five years were stunted or had not achieved the standard height for that age group. It was 38% in the 2015-16 NFHS.
Since then, some members of the EAC-PM have found faults with the NFHS methodology, the newspaper reported.
However, another survey commissioned by the health ministry along with UNICEF, the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey, also showed that 35% of children under five were stunted. Both surveys used the WHO standards.