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Malnutrition kills millions a year

Simon Tisdall

Survey by Save the Children highlights the devastating effects of malnutrition and predicts a disaster if the situation isn't remedied.

Malnutrition is the root cause of the deaths of 2.6-million children each year. And unless immediate action is taken, the bodies and brains of 450-million more will fail to develop properly because of inadequate diet over the next 15 years, according to a survey published this week by a leading international charity.

The survey of developing countries, “A Life Free from Hunger”, produced by Save the Children, estimates that one in four children are already stunted because of malnutrition; in some developing countries the figure is one in three. In India 48% of children are stunted and in high¬≠population-growth Nigeria and Tanzania the problem is escalating rapidly, it says. Soaring food prices are an aggravating factor.

But these damaging trends can be halted and reversed using tried and tested solutions—if the political will exists and public awareness is raised, the authors say.

They urge British Prime Minister David Cameron to use the 2012 Olympics, when dozens of heads of state will be in London, to host a “world hunger summit” and launch a campaign to aid malnutrition victims. Campaigners also want the issue addressed at the G8 summit in Chicago in May.

Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children, says: “This is a hidden hunger crisis that could destroy the lives of nearly half a billion children, unless world leaders act to stop it. Every hour of every day 300 children die from malnutrition-related causes simply because they don’t get to eat the basic nutritious foods. Yet solutions are clear, cheap and necessary. Not only will tackling hunger save children’s lives but, at a time of economic meltdown, it will help reboot the global economy.”

Overall, progress had been made in recent years in reducing avoidable child deaths worldwide through immunisation and training frontline health workers, Forsyth says. Now a big push was required on a third front to reduce and ultimately eliminate malnutrition.

2012 is a make-or-break year
The survey says 2012 is a vital year. By mid-2013 it will already be too late to provide protection from stunting for the generation of children who will reach their second birthday, a key nutrition milestone, by the deadline set by the United Nation’s 2015 millennium development goals. The survey says: “Significant progress has been made in saving children’s lives. The number of children not making it to their fifth birthday has fallen from 12-million in 1990 to 7.6-million in 2011.

“Momentum is building—in 2011 world leaders made critical progress on immunisation by pledging to vaccinate 250-million children by 2015, saving four million lives, and 40 countries committed to filling the 3.5-million health worker gap. At the same time we must accelerate efforts to improve nutrition, which holds the key to further progress.”

The survey says progress on stunting has been extremely slow. About 80% of all stunted children live in 20 of the world’s poorest countries, which has a significant impact on economic development.

Sharply rising food prices are a big negative factor. In Nigeria 94% of families cite prices as their most pressing concern and nearly a third of parents say they had taken children out of school and sent them out to work to help pay for food.

“In the past year, nearly a quarter of a billion parents in countries already struggling with malnutrition have cut back on food for their families,” Forsyth says.

The report says: “Malnutrition is undermining economic growth and reducing the productivity of people trying to work their way out of poverty ... it is estimated that 2% to 3% of national income can be lost to malnutrition. In 2010 alone, malnutrition cost the world nearly ¬£77-billion.”

Economic downturn and climate change
The report quotes World Bank findings that many more families will be pushed into poverty and thus be less able to feed their children, because of the economic downturn.

Meanwhile, the UN World Food Programme has predicted that 24-million more children will be malnourished by 2050 as a result of climate change.

Stunting is not necessarily the result of not having enough to eat. It occurs because families cannot grow or afford nutritious food such as vegetables, milk or meat.

The analysis says: “Over half of all children in poor countries only eat three food items—staples such as cassava, which has no nutritional value at all, a pulse such as peas and a vegetable, usually green leaves.

This lack of nutrition leaves their bodies starved of crucial minerals, vitamins, proteins and fat and means their brains and bodies do not develop properly. The impact can be devastating. If malnourished children do survive, they grow up physically short, usually with lower IQs and are much more likely to drop out of school and fail to get a job.”

The survey says it could cost as little as $10-billion a year to help to protect 90% of the most vulnerable children from hunger, and calls for more food supplements, improved hygiene and increased awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding.

The survey also highlights the importance of small farms and female farmers. “Three-quarters of Africa’s malnourished children live on small farms and 43% of agricultural work is carried out by women. Success depends on ensuring that local markets are accessible and functioning, on improving education about nutrition and on investing in better research.”—

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