According to a report entitled “A Life Free from Hunger: Tackling Child Malnutrition” by Save the Children, nearly half a billion children are at risk of permanent damage in the next 15 years as a result of malnutrition. Chronic childhood malnutrition has been largely neglected, despite worldwide efforts to address food security.

The report was released in light of the current emergency food crisis in the African Sahel.

Carolyn Miles, President and CEO of Save the Children, explained:

“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.”

According to the report, chronic malnutrition (lack of proper nutrition over time), is more lethal and significantly more extensive than the short-term acute malnutrition often observed during food crisis.

Chronic malnutrition weakens the immune systems of young children, which can lead to malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia, all of which can result in death. Each year, chronic malnutrition kills 2 million children, three times as many as result from acute malnutrition.

In addition, children with chronic malnutrition are significantly more susceptible to extreme suffering and death from acute malnutrition in emergency food crises, as in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel at present. In total, malnutrition is responsible for 2.6 million child deaths each year, or one third of all child deaths.

Miles said:

“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.”

The organization requests that action should be taken on proven solutions that would help all children affected by malnutrition and hunger and prevent these deaths. Compared to the significant advances made on other worldwide health crises, progress on reducing malnutrition has been considerably slow for two decades.

Children who are well-nourished perform better in school and earn significantly more as adults, on average, compared to adults who were malnourished as children. According to recent evidence, nutritional interventions can raise the amount adults earn by 46%. Several developing countries spend an estimated 2-3% of their GDP as result of malnutrition. In addition, malnutrition impedes global economic growth at a critical time and extends the cycle of poverty.

Miles explains:

“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?”

World leaders have inspired much-needed support to increase agricultural productivity while addressing food security, however, they have not yet made nutrition central to their efforts. In 2009, President Obama helped start the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative, which resulted in $22 billion in pledges at the G20 and G8 meetings. However just 3% of these pledges and less than 1% of pledges fulfilled so far have gone towards nutrition.

Miles said:

“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 will host this spring’s G8 meeting in Chicago, and many expect that he will address food security again. Save the Children is requesting that G8 extend food security funding at current levels for 3 years while paying greater attention on nutrition.

Seminal research published in the Lancet medical journal in 2008, reveals that the vast majority of malnutrition, especially in the vital 1,000-day window between conception and age 2, could be prevented by a set of 13 basic interventions, such as proper introduction of varied foods for infants, vitamin supplementation, fortification of basic staples, and encouraging breastfeeding to avoid contaminated water.

According to an estimate by The World Bank, the cost of getting these solutions to 90% of the children who need them would cost $10 billion per year and save 2 million children. Save the Children says, split among developing and developed countries, that figure is manageable.

Save the Children explains that if the world does not act and the current rate of progress of reducing chronic malnutrition continues at less than 1% each year, 450 million children will be affected in the next 15 years.

Written by Grace Rattue