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How Digital Technology Combats Malnourishment in India

Malnourishment in India
The 2022 Global Hunger Index ranks India 107th out of 121 countries in terms of hunger, with a score of 29.1, equating to a serious level of hunger. Hunger and malnourishment are interlinked. About 14% of the population in India (about 189.2 million people) suffered from undernourishment in 2020, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). According to India’s Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, data from 2019-2021 shows that about one-third of Indian children under 5 suffer from stunting (impaired growth due to poor nutrition) and about 19% suffer from wasting (low weight for their height). To address malnourishment in India, health workers can use digital tools like apps and digital libraries to detect malnourishment in children and educate the Indian population on the importance of nutrition.

Causes of Malnourishment in Women and Children

Household traditions prioritize feeding men and children over women, leaving women with the leftovers. As of 2022, about 18.7% of women of childbearing age (15-49) in India are underweight. When women lack key nutrients while pregnant, they are more likely to give birth to underweight and stunted babies.

Another factor contributing to malnourishment in India is a lack of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is essential for babies to obtain vital nutrients naturally present in breast milk. The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines direct mothers to exclusively breastfeed babies for six months. Thereafter, mothers can introduce “nutritious complementary foods and continue breastfeeding up to the age of two years or beyond.” According to The Times of India, in India, less than 50% of children are breastfed within an hour of birth, whereas the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months stood at 55%.” Furthermore, if a mother is severely malnourished, she may not be able to produce enough milk for her baby.

Methods of detecting malnutrition present another issue. Many field workers lack the skills to properly conduct a physical assessment to detect malnutrition. Standardized assessments by humanitarian aid organizations and governments can be lengthy and costly and the measuring methods can vary depending on what tools are available, leading to inconsistent data. The health workers typically document these measurements in writing and eventually transfer the data to an Excel spreadsheet. This takes a lot of time and the captured data can contain input errors. On top of that, workers may not be able to recognize if the child is malnourished by sight alone. This is where digital tools come into play.

Child Growth Monitor

Child Growth Monitor is an artificial intelligence-based mobile app that the German nonprofit Welthungerhilfe created that improves the process of identifying child malnourishment. The app takes 3D measurements of a child’s body using an infrared sensor available on certain smartphones and quickly uploads the data onto Microsoft Azure, a cloud computing service. Then, nutritionists and IT specialists can examine the scans using Microsft AI solutions to assess a child’s dietary health and determine if the child is malnourished. Welthungerhilfe released a beta version of this app in 2020 due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on food security.

Welthungerhilfe and partners are piloting the app in three states in India — Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. The NGO Action Against Hunger is providing support to 150 field workers to use the app to scan and evaluate children.

Child Growth Monitor collects data much faster than traditional measuring methods and has a lower margin of error. Users do not need to be anthropometric (experts in the study of measurements and proportions of the human body) to get accurate data and recognize if a child is undernourished. In addition, the app measures children the same way every time, allowing for consistent data.

HealthPhone

In 2015, HealthPhone, in partnership with the Indian Academy of Pediatrics (IAP), the Government of India and UNICEF, launched a large three-year digital mass education program called IAP HealthPhone to educate more than 10 million females between the ages of 13 and 35 on how to improve health and nutrition among themselves and their families.

The program promoted and distributed four free videos in 18 languages on mobile phones. These videos covered simple ways to improve nutrition through diet, the significance of breastfeeding and adequate nutrition, specific guidelines for pregnant women and children younger than 24 months old and the “status of women.”

IAP also partnered with the telecommunications company Vodafone to send 300 million text messages annually to Vodafone’s 184 million subscribers to spread the videos to as many people as possible.

The IAP HealthPhone program hopes to benefit 60 million children born in India by 2025.

Nutrify India Now

Nutrify India Now is a diet-tracking food app that India’s National Institute of Nutrition launched in 2018. People can use the app to determine the calories and nutrients contained in “common Indian food.” Available in 17 different languages, the app helps to guide the user’s nutrition decisions in order to tackle malnourishment in India.

The app information is derived from “India-specific databases” and uses guidelines that the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), India’s apex medical research body, recommended. As of November 27, 2022, the app has had more than 50,000 downloads on Google Play.

A Nutritious Future

Malnourishment in India, especially among mothers and their children, is a significant issue in the country. But, with easy-to-use digital tools, more people will be able to understand the importance of a nutritious diet and take action to improve their nutrition.

– James Harrington
Photo: Wikipedia Commons