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Poverty & SDGs

Malnutrition Still Killing Three Million Children Under Five

Children in drought-struck Camotán, in Chiquimula province, Guatemala. Credit: Danilo Valladares/IPS

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 6 2013 (IPS) - Kevin’s Carter’s disturbing picture of the 1993 famine in Sudan won him a Pulitzer Prize.

The image of an emaciated child being watched by a vulture was etched into the world’s memory forever, drawing attention to conditions where survival becomes the only priority.

Reducing the child mortality rate and improving maternal health prominently figure in the list of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were adopted by the international community in 2000 in New York with a 2015 deadline.

Malnutrition in a Snapshot

Iron and calcium deficiencies contribute substantially to maternal deaths
Globally, 165 million children are stunted.

Most overweight children younger than 5 years (32 million in 2011) live in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs).

Fetal growth restriction is associated with maternal short stature and underweight and causes 12 percent of neonatal deaths.

Suboptimum breastfeeding results in more than 800 000 child deaths annually.

Undernutrition, including fetal growth restriction, suboptimum breastfeeding, stunting, wasting, and deficiencies of vitamin A and zinc, cause 45 percent of child deaths, resulting in 3.1 million deaths annually.

As the world body draws up a list of new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the medical journal The Lancet published a series of reports Wednesday finding that,among other things, malnutrition is responsible for nearly half (45 percent) of all deaths in children under five.

Around three million deaths of children under five occur from malnutrition, which encompasses undernutrition and overweight, both global problems.

The focus of agricultural programmes should shift towards enhanced nutrition rather than just increasing crop yields, Professor Robert Black of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told IPS.

“These programmes have not been set up in an ideal way,” he said.

Calling for the idea of “nutritional sensitive agriculture”, Black also emphasised the importance of actions at the community level to address issues on malnutrition.

Collaboration among civil society, humanitarian agencies and the commercial sector would make a difference at the local level, Black told IPS. “More engagement of organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is important,” he said.

Martin Bloem, senior nutritional advisor with the World Food Program (WFP), echoed a similar sentiment. He emphasised the role of Anganwadis, government sponsored child-care centres in India, in countries like India.

Reports suggest that lack of resources as well as unhygienic conditions in these centres have raised new challenges when it comes to addressing issues of malnutrition in a country like India.

But inspection and strict monitoring is paramount when local communities are involved, Bloem said.

The findings in The Lancet come ahead of the Group of Eight (G8) summit, which will be preceded by the UK and Brazilian governments co-hosting a high-level event on Nutrition for Growth.

The findings suggest that addressing the problem means addressing the underlying causes of malnutrition, such as, “poverty, food insecurity, poor education, and gender inequity”.

The study also stated that close to 15 percent of all deaths in children under the age of five could be prevented by providing vitamin A and zinc supplements to children up to the age of five, as well as taking care of dietary needs of pregnant women, among many other measures.

But, it is the time of pregnancy and the first 1,000 days that are most crucial for a child’s growth, Bloem told IPS. The health of the mother is equally important, he said.

“Also people do not realise the relation between stunted growth and obesity which can increase the chances of cardiovascular diseases. Also, there is an urgent need to link the health and the food system all around the world,” he said.

Public-private partnerships can help create products which are nutritional, affordable and accessible to vulnerable populations all over the world, Ellen Piwoz, senior programme officer for family health and nutrition at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told IPS.

But what is stalling the fight against malnutrition is “the lack of a real commitment and drive among international governments,” said Werner Schultink, UNICEF’s head of nutrition.

While reducing hunger and poverty have been leading priorities for the U.N., “if you look at the indicators, such as underweight, the progress is insufficient.”

According to the study, emerging problems of obesity and overweight are “resulting in a ‘double burden’ of maternal and child disease and illness,” in countries where undernutrition is already a huge problem.

A right balance of adequate nutritional diet and an affordable food industry spearheaded by public and private sectors as well as community-level initiatives could provide solutions to tackle this “killer”, said experts.

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