World failing in fight against childhood undernutrition – new UN report

“Few things have more impact than nutrition on a child’s ability to survive, learn effectively and escape a life of poverty,” UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Ann M. Veneman said in issuing the study – Progress for Children: A Report Card on Nutrition.“One underweight and undernourished child is an individual tragedy,” she told a news briefing at UN Headquarters in New York. “But multiplied by tens of millions, under-nutrition becomes a global threat to society and to the economy.”The report calls for the urgent establishment of a nutrition “safety net” as a central component of national policies to guarantee access to remedies, ranging from vitamin A capsules and iron and iodine supplements to eliminating unsafe feeding practices. It notes that the rate of underweight children under five has fallen only slightly since 1990 – proof that the world is failing children and still far off track for achieving the UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.This entails halving the proportion of children who are underweight for their age. Despite progress in some countries, developing-world averages have dropped just five percentage points in the last 15 years. Today, 27 per cent of children in developing countries are underweight, around 146 million. Nearly three quarters of these live in just 10 countries, and over half in just three countries: Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.The figures are just the tip of the iceberg. “For every visibly undernourished child, there are several more battling a hidden nutritional crisis,” Ms. Veneman said. “Many are seriously deficient in essential vitamins and minerals such as iodine, vitamin A and iron.” Without them, children become easy prey for common diseases and under-perform at school. For example, a lack of iodine in household diets leaves 37 million newborns vulnerable to learning disabilities every year. And iron deficiency is a major cause of maternal deaths.The report shows only two regions of the world on track for reducing the prevalence of underweight children: Latin America and the Caribbean, and the East Asia and Pacific region, with rates of 7 per cent and 15 per cent respectively. Progress in East Asia largely has been due to the great leaps taken by China in reducing the rate by an average of 6.7 per cent per year since 1990. In South Asia, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan account for half of all the world’s underweight children. Approximately 47 per cent of India’s under-five population is underweight, dragging down the regional average.The famine-prone Eastern and Southern Africa region has not made measurable progress to meet the MDG target, its overall tally remaining static at 29 per cent. West and Central Africa has done better, partly due to strides made by some countries to support exclusive breastfeeding for infants and community-based health care. Under-nutrition rates within the bigger nations of the Middle East and North Africa have pushed back the regional average. Iraq, Sudan and Yemen are all showing a rise in the proportion of underweight children – with conflict playing a major role in many cases.The Central and Eastern Europe/Commonwealth of Independent States has the world’s lowest childhood underweight figures, just 5 per cent. But here, as in industrialized countries, there are disparities, with low birth-weight more common among the poorest and the ethnic minorities. In the United States, the rate is 2 per cent.Because the roots of under-nutrition lie in poverty, lack of education and inequality, fighting back will take more than food deliveries, the report says. Unsafe feeding practices and repeated bouts of illness such as diarrhoea and malaria are all major factors depriving children of nutrients. Solutions can be as simple as a capsule of vitamin A costing just a few cents delivered during immunization – a programme currently saving around 350,000 lives per year by boosting immune systems. Fortifying staple foods with key nutrients like iron and iodine is a proven way to protect millions of children against damaging deficiencies and developmental delays. read more