Future generations in jeopardy unless urgent efforts are made to tackle undernutrition, says UNICEF
NEW YORK, 11 November 2009 – Approximately 200 million children under the age of five in the developing world suffer from stunted growth as a result of chronic maternal and childhood undernutrition, according to a UNICEF report released today titled ‘Tracking Progress on Child and Maternal Nutrition’.
Undernutrition contributes to more than a third of all deaths in children under five. Undernutrition is often invisible until it is severe, and children who appear healthy may be at grave risk of serious and even permanent damage to their health and development.
“Undernutrition steals a child’s strength and makes illnesses that the body might otherwise fight off far more dangerous,” said Ann M. Veneman UNICEF Executive Director. “More than one-third of children who die from pneumonia, diarrhoea and other illnesses could have survived had they not been undernourished.”
The 1,000 days from conception until a child’s second birthday are the most critical for a child’s development. Nutritional deficiencies during this critical period can reduce the ability to fight and survive disease, and can impair their social and mental capacities.
“Those who survive undernutrition often suffer poorer physical health throughout their lives, and damaged cognitive abilities that limit their capacity to learn and to earn a decent income,” said Veneman. “They become trapped in an intergenerational cycle of ill-health and poverty.”
Stunted growth is a consequence of longer-term poor nutrition in early childhood. Stunting is associated with developmental problems and is often impossible to correct. A child who is stunted is likely to experience a lifetime of poor health and underachievement, so the answer lies in prevention. More than 90 per cent of the developing world’s stunted children live in Africa and Asia.
Inadequate nutrition also causes children to be underweight. Underweight children experience similar serious health and developmental problems, but these issues can be remedied if nutrition and health improve later in childhood.
The good news is that reducing and even eliminating undernutrition is entirely feasible.
Of all the proven interventions, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months – together with nutritionally adequate foods from six months– can have a significant impact on child survival and stunting, potentially reducing the under five child mortality by 19 per cent in developing countries. The report includes data showing that 16 developing countries successfully increased their exclusive breastfeeding rates by 20 per cent, in periods ranging from seven to twelve years.
Huge strides have also been made in the delivery of cost-effective solutions to undernutrition, including micronutrients, to vulnerable populations worldwide.
For example, significant progress has been made in providing children with access to iodized salt and vitamin A supplements, and this has contributed to reduced infant and child mortality. In the world’s least developed countries, the percentage of children under five years receiving essential doses of vitamin A supplement has more than doubled, from 41 per cent in 2000 to 88 per cent in 2008.
While 90 per cent of children who are stunted live in Asia and Africa, progress has been made on both continents. In Asia the prevalence of stunting dropped from about 44 per cent in 1990 to an estimated 30 per cent in 2008, while in Africa it fell from around 38 per cent in 1990 to an estimated 34 per cent in 2008.
“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,” said Veneman. “Unless attention is paid to addressing the causes of child and maternal undernutrition today, the costs will be considerably higher tomorrow.”
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UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments. For more information about UNICEF, please visit www.unicef.ca.