Malnutrition stunts growth of millions of children

BAD STATE: Malnutrition is under-appreciated because poor nutrition is mistaken for a lack of food photo: Muntu Vilakazi
BAD STATE: Malnutrition is under-appreciated because poor nutrition is mistaken for a lack of food photo: Muntu Vilakazi

LONDON - About 165 million children worldwide were stunted by malnutrition as babies face a future of ill health, poor education, low earnings and poverty, the head of the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) said.

Anthony Lake, executive director of Unicef, said that the problem of malnutrition was vastly under-appreciated, largely because poor nutrition was often mistaken for a lack of food.

He said, in reality, malnutrition and its irreversible health consequences also affected relatively well-off countries, such as India where there was plenty of food, but access to it was unequal and nutritional content could be low.

"Undernutrition, especially stunting, is one of the least recognised crises for children in the world," Lake said.

Stunting is the consequence of undernutrition in the first 1000 or so days of a baby's life, including during gestation.

Stunted children learn less in school and are more likely themselves to live in poverty and go on to have children also stunted by poor nutrition.

These, in turn, increased poverty in affected countries and regions, and drove greater gaps between the rich and the poor, Lake said.

"The numbers are phenomenal. In India, for example, about 48% of children are stunted, and in Yemen it's almost 60%. Just think of the drag on development," Lake said.

"And the key point is that it is absolutely irreversible. You can feed up an underweight child, but with a stunted child, because of the effects on the brain, it has apermanently reduced cognitive capacity by the age of around two years."

The Lancet medical journal ran a series of studies on the issue, which found that as well as the 165 million children stunted by poor nutrition, nearly half of all deaths among under fives - 3.1 million deaths a year - are caused by malnutrition.

Unicef said it wanted to focus global efforts for now on 20 countries - mostly in Africa and Asia - which were home to 70% of the world's stunted children.

Achieving food security - which entails ensuring countries had enough food to go around - however, should not be mistaken for addressing the problem of poor nutrition, he said.

"The fact is that India, with 48% (childhood) stunting, is considered food secure - but that doesn't mean food is distributed equitably within India.

"And in Africa, for instance, if you only eat cassava, then your belly may be full and you may technically have food security, but that doesn't mean you're getting the nutrition needed to prevent stunting."

Lake also stressed that increased funding was only part of the solution and that spending donor funds wisely in trusted community-based programmes was essential.

He said such programmes needed to cover a range of measures, including promoting more nutritious foods.

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