HEALTH bosses have pledged to investigate new data showing alarming levels of malnutrition in primary school children in Blackburn and Darwen.
Childhood obesity has repeatedly been highlighted as a serious concern in the borough, and health chiefs stressed obesity remains a major problem, but the new statistics reveal a significant number of children at the opposite end of the scale.
It comes as thousands of families find themselves relying on emergency food parcels, with many youngsters at risk of going hungry in the holidays without their free school meals.
Data obtained from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), which looked at the Body Mass Index (BMI) of Year 6 children, showed 3.5 per cent were clinically underweight in Blackburn with Darwen in 2012/13, which equated to 66 pupils.
Assuming the figures are similar for other year groups, there will be about 400 children in the borough who are now at risk of malnutrition.
Dominic Harrison, the borough council’s director of public health, said his team would be looking closely at the issue in the next few weeks to ‘understand the full range of causes’.
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He added that malnutrition in children was ‘particularly concerning’ as it could have lifelong effects, increasing the risk of cardiovascular and other chronic diseases. Access to an adequate supply of food is the ‘most basic of human needs and rights’, he said.
Just 1.3 per cent of pupils across the North West and England were classed as underweight, which shows the extent of the problem in Blackburn with Darwen.
The only other boroughs in East Lancashire which were above the national average were Hyndburn and Pendle, with 1.4 per cent.
Burnley was 1.2 per cent, Ribble Valley 0.6 per cent, Chorley 1 per cent and Rossendale 1.1 per cent.
Mr Harrison said: “The fact that 3.5 per cent of Blackburn with Darwen’s Year 6 children are underweight is shocking, as in large part this should be preventable.
“I have no doubt that for some of these children the cause will simply be that they are not getting enough calories.
“Food poverty will be the prime cause and this is unfair, unjust and avoidable.
“Local authority areas with similar demographics such as Oldham and Bradford do have rates higher than the English average, but they are all much lower than Blackburn with Darwen, which now appears to have the highest percentage of underweight children in England.”
Unlike adults, a child’s BMI is classified using thresholds that vary to take into account the child’s age and sex.
Those in the bottom two per cent compared to a large reference population are classed as underweight.
Dr Javed Iqbal, clinical director for paediatrics at East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust, said underweight children often suffer from anaemia and Vitamin D deficiency, which impair the development of their brain and reduce their ability to maintain normal levels of activity.
Blackburn Foodbank, which has been backed by a Lancashire Telegraph campaign, has provided emergency food to more than 3,250 children since being launched in November 2012.
Project manager Ros Duerden said demand for the charity’s food parcels soars during the schools holidays, when they see a near 60 per cent increase in demand.
She said: “These figures don’t surprise me as we’ve seen a lot of kids who look like they could do with three square meals. We seem to be experiencing the effects of deprivation much quicker than other areas and I think we’re really on a knife edge here.
“We’ve lost a lot of semi-skilled jobs in this area, because the type of industry we’ve had has disappeared.”
She added: “There’s now a groundswell of people who don’t have the skills needed to access the kind of jobs that are available at the moment.”
Ron O’Keeffe, chairman of the council’s health scrutiny committee, called for more investment to create jobs, and suggested more help could be given to the food banks.
He said: “We know that many parents are feeding their kids junk food which is leading to high obesity rates, but these figures suggest there are many children who aren’t even getting that.
“There’s such a divide between the north and the south and the government has got to step in and do something about the deprivation here.
“It needs a major investment to create jobs.
“Many families are short of finance at the moment and can’t give their children a proper meal.
“There are lots of school breakfast clubs now, and of course free school meals, but some kids are missing out in the evenings and during holidays.
“Let’s look at what the Foodbank is doing and try and give them more support.”