Save the Children released a report today, claiming that childhood malnutrition over the next fifteen years, puts nearly five hundred million youngsters at risk of permanent health problems.

Carolyn Miles, President & CEO of Save the Children said in a statement :

“Malnutrition is a largely hidden crisis, but it afflicts one in four children around the world … It wreaks lifelong damage and is a major killer of children. Every hour of every day, 300 children die because of malnutrition.”

The report which is entitled “A Life Free from Hunger: Tackling Child Malnutrition,” coincides with news of the latest emergency food crisis coming to light. The African Sahel region in West Africa, which is centered around Hodh Gharbi scrubland in Mauritania, is facing severe food shortages. There is a humanitarian crisis growing, but while these shocking disasters make headlines, the longer term creeping aspects of chronic malnutrition, or a lack of proper nutrition over time, is seen by Save The Children as being deadlier and more widespread than these headline grabbing short-term acute situations.

The problem is that chronic malnutrition weakens young children’s immune systems, making them far more likely to die of childhood diseases like diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria. Estimates put the number of child deaths a year, at around 2 million, three times as many as result from acute malnutrition.

Chronic malnutrition also leaves children far more vulnerable to extreme suffering and death when emergency food crises hit, a prime example being in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel right now. Malnutrition is the underlying cause behind some 2.6 million child deaths every year, or more than 30% of all child deaths.

Miles continued:

“It’s time for a paradigm shift. The world can no longer afford to wait until visibly emaciated children grab headlines to inspire the action these children need and deserve. Unfortunately for millions of the world’s chronically malnourished children, permanent damage to their physical and intellectual development is not as obvious, and so it’s too often overlooked.”

Save the Children’s report calls for immediate action using known solutions to prevent deaths and help all children affected by hunger or malnutrition. After some large bursts of media attention in the 1980s, real progress on reducing malnutrition has been terribly slow for 20 years, which is in contrast to many other global health crises, such as AIDS and Malaria where progress continues at a decent pace.

It hardly needs statistics to know that well-nourished children will perform better in school and grow up to earn considerably more on average than those who were malnourished as children. Recent evidence suggests nutritional interventions can increase adult earnings by 46 percent. Malnutrition costs many developing nations an estimated 2-3 percent of their GDP, prolonging the seemingly endless cycle of poverty in developing nations. It also impedes global economic growth at a critical time.

Miles asked governments around the world:

“World leaders are searching for ways to strengthen their economies over the long term, so why not achieve that through helping children get the healthy start they deserve?”

Dealing with the issue of food security, especially in developing nations, has seen world leaders garnering support to boost agricultural productivity, but they have not specifically made nutrition or lack of it central to their efforts, which seems somewhat ironic with laws about salt and sugar content in food beginning to gather momentum in developed nations.

President Obama pushed for the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative, in 2009 and although $22 billion in pledges were made at the G8 and G20 meetings, only 3 percent of these pledges and less than 1 percent of pledges fulfilled to date have targeted nutrition. Did the pursuit for headlines interfere with the ultimate goals?

Miles continues her push for action saying :

“Investment in agriculture is clearly important to making sure production keeps up with a growing population … But let’s not forget, right now the world produces enough food to feed everybody, and yet one third of children in developing countries are malnourished. Clearly, just growing more food is not the answer … the United States has shown great leadership on nutrition, but now must call on other powerful nations to make it a global priority.”

President Obama is expected to address food security when he hosts this spring’s G8 meeting in Chicago. Save the Children is calling for the G8 to extend food security funding, keeping current levels for three years, while aiming for efforts to be focused specifically on nutrition.

Research published in the Lancet medical journal in 2008, contained a set of 13 basic interventions that could prevent almost all malnutrition, especially during the most important 1,000-day window, between conception and age 2.

Examples of actions would include simple things such as encouraging breastfeeding, a practice that powder milk companies made great efforts to curtain in the late 1900s. Other solutions include avoiding contaminated water, proper introduction of varied foods for infants, fortification of basic staples and vitamin supplementation. None of the possibilities are particularly complicated, and there is little excuse for inaction, with the World Bank estimating the cost of getting these solutions to 90 percent of the children who need them, would annually save 2 million lives and cost a trifling $10 billion.

Split among developing and developed countries, that sum is manageable, Save the Children says, however if the world fails to take action and the current rate of progress of reducing chronic malnutrition maintains its anemic progress of less than 1 percent a year, 450 million children will be affected in the next 15 years.

It’s a stunning revelation that surely can’t be ignored, $10 Billion by fifteen year,s for 500 Million children is only $300 a head.

Written by Rupert Shepherd