More than 3 million children die each year because of malnutrition, accounting for more than fifty percent of deaths among those under the age of 5, according a new report published in the Lancet.

A team of experts analyzed the true extent of global malnutrition, as well as the factors that cause it, to develop a new framework for prevention and treatment.

The study revealed that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, from the day they are born until they are nearly three, impact not only their future health, but also a nation’s economic advancement.

Professor Robert Black, Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who led the research, said:

“This series strengthens the evidence that a nation’s economic advancement is tied to the first 1,000 days of every child’s life. Malnutrition can haunt children for the rest of their lives. Undernourished children are more susceptible to infectious diseases and achieve less education and have lower cognitive abilities. As a result, undernutrition can significantly impede a country’s economic growth.”

According to a United Nations report, malnutrition costs the global economy $3.5tn. Over the next fifteen years, it’s estimated that malnutrition will put nearly five hundred million youngsters at risk of permanent health problems.

In 2011 more than 165 million children were affected by stunting and a further 50 million were affected by wasting. Even though some progress has been achieved over recent years, the researchers believe that up to 900,000 deaths could be prevented if 10 proven interventions are scaled-up.

Proper nutrition is essential for healthy development and encouraging, educating and providing people with healthy food is key for addressing global malnutrition. A previous study conducted in Niger found that child mortality dropped by 50% after children received highly nutritious supplemental food.

Over 800,000 neonatal deaths are caused by poor growth of the baby while in the womb, because of maternal malnutrition.

Women who are undernourished are at a higher risk of dying during pregnancy or giving birth prematurely.

In low- and middle-income countries more than twenty five percent of babies are considered to be small for their gestational age, which increases their risk of death.

In an accompanying article, Professor Joanne Katz, Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School, wrote:

“To prevent neonatal deaths, we should track whether the baby was born too small or too soon, not just the baby’s birth weight. This will allow us to better implement the appropriate interventions to prevent these conditions and improve survival.”

Black concluded that developing nations will never break out of poverty or achieve economic advances if their people are not receiving the necessary nutritional security to live productive lives.

Black added “we need to redouble our efforts and invest in what we know works. As the study led by Professor Zulfiqar Bhutta of Aga Khan University shows, scaling up 10 proven interventions, including treatment of acute malnutrition, promotion of infant and child feeding, and zinc supplementation, can already save 900,000 children a year.”

Written by Joseph Nordqvist