A new report from UNICEF suggests that malnutrition has stunted nearly 200 million children under 5 living in poor countries and that future generations are in jeopardy unless urgent efforts are made to tackle undernutrition.

The UNICEF report Tracking Progress on Child and Maternal Nutrition was released on Wednesday and says that undernutrition is linked to nearly a third of all deaths in the under-5s. The condition is often invisible until it is severe, say the authors who stress that children who may seem healthy could be at serious risk and even permanent damage to their health and development.

UNICEF Executive Director, Ann M Veneman, told the press that:

“Undernutrition steals a child’s strength and makes illnesses that the body might otherwise fight off far more dangerous.”

“More than one-third of children who die from pneumonia, diarrhoea and other illnesses could have survived had they not been undernourished,” she explained.

The authors point out that deficiences in the 1,000 days leading up to a child’s second birthday can impair social and mental development as well as his or her ability to fight and survive disease.

Veneman said that children who survive undernutrition often go on to suffer poorer physical health as adults, and have limited mental capacity to learn and earn a decent income.

“They become trapped in an intergenerational cycle of ill-health and poverty,” she said.

More than 90 per cent of the developing world’s stunted children live in Africa and Asia, according to the report, which stresses that stunted growth, a consequence of long term poor nutrition in childhood, is linked to developmental problems and is often impossible to correct.

Underweight is often another consequence of inadequate nutrition and underweight children can have similar health and developmental problems, but these can be remedied if they get better food and their health improves later in childhood.

UNICEF says it is entirely feasible to reduce or even eliminate undernutrition. The report includes some success stories:

  • 16 countries have increased their exclusive breastfeeding rates by 20 per cent, in periods ranging from seven to twelve years. Breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a child’s life, together with nutritionally adequate foods from six months, can potentially reduce the mortality of children under 5 by 19 per cent in developing countries, said the authors.
  • Delivery of micronutrients and other solutions to vulnerable populations such as giving children access to iodized salt and vitamin A has reduced mortality in babies and children. In the world’s least developed nations, children under 5 receiving essential doses of vitamin A has more than doubled from 41 per cent in 2000 to 88 per cent in 2008.
  • Although 90 per cent of children with stunted growth are in Asia and Africa, nonetheless these two continents have shown significant progress in addressing the problem. In Asia the prevalence of stunting fell from about 44 per cent in 1990 to an estimated 30 per cent in 2008, and in Africa it went down from around 38 per cent in 1990 to an estimated 34 per cent in 2008.

However, there is still a lot to be done urged Veneman :

“Global commitments on food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture are part of a wider agenda that will help address the critical issues raised in this report.”

“Unless attention is paid to addressing the causes of child and maternal undernutrition today, the costs will be considerably higher tomorrow,” she added.

However, according to a report in the Associated Press (AP), not everyone agrees that it is top down interventions that have caused the improvements decribed in the report.

Philip Stevens, from the London-based think tank International Policy Network, told AP that:

“It is unrealistic to believe malnutrition can be addressed by any topdown UN scheme. The progress UNICEF’s report points to in improving nutrition is almost certainly a result of economic growth, not UN strategies.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which is holding a world summit in Rome next week to discuss and agree new ways to address the plight of the world’s 1 billion hungry people, suggest that the solution lies in increasing investment in agricultural development for poor countries.

In a press briefing reported by AP, FAO director-general Jacques Diouf cites the success of countries like Brazil, Nigeria and Vietnam who successfully tackled their hunger problems by investing in small farmers and rural poor.

The FAO summit is expecting 60 heads of state, including Pope Benedict XVI, and aims to agree a new strategy to combat hunger based on increasing investment in agricultural development. The FAO believes the current figure of 7.9 billion US dollars needs to go up to 44 billion to improve irrigation, introduce more modern machinery, build roads, train farmers, and also provide seeds and fertilizers.

— View full report from UNICEF (pdf)

Sources: UNICEF, AP.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD