Background: Two large-scale studies, the National Surveillance System (NSS) Pilot Study (2003-2004) and the National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment (NRVA) 2003, were conducted by government, United Nations, and nongovernmental organizations in Afghanistan, as part of wider efforts characterizing Afghan livelihoods in relation to particular outcomes of interest: vulnerability to poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition.
Objective: To present the data from these two surveys with nutrition as the key outcome of interest, and to further construct the understanding of the underlying causes of malnutrition, thus providing public health practitioners and other sector specialists with insight into how a variety of sectoral programs can impact nutritional outcomes in Afghanistan.
Methods: The NSS gathered information on livelihoods, food security, and nutrition from 20 to 40 randomly selected households in each of 26 purposively selected sentinel sites (representative of livelihood zones) during November-December 2003 and May-June 2004. The NRVA gathered information nationally from households selected with a two-stage sampling (based on livelihood zone and then socioeconomic group) during July-September 2004.
Results: Acute malnutrition is below emergency levels for children under five. The level of chronic malnutrition in children under five indicates a problem of public health importance. Dietary diversity in Afghanistan is not as low as expected but still shows room for improvement, particularly in remote areas and with respect to food groups associated with adequate micronutrient intake. The findings also suggest that in addition to lack of adequate household food intake, recurrent illness and suboptimal infant and young child feeding and hygiene practices contribute to poor nutritional outcomes in this age group. The survey also found poor access to health care, markets, and water for household use.
Conclusions: Improving nutritional status requires a multipronged approach, directly targeting malnutrition, coupled with economic growth, household livelihood security, social protection, access to public health services, and water and sanitation. Nutrition policy, programming, and monitoring need to reflect the immediate and underlying causes of malnutrition. Future research needs to be designed to quantify the relative contribution of underlying causes of poor nutrition, allowing practitioners to prioritize responses aimed at improving nutritional outcomes.