Undernutrition is a contributing factor in more than one third of all deaths in children under age five, and approximately 200 million children in this age group in the developing world suffer from stunted growth as a result of chronic maternal and childhood undernutrition, according to a UNICEF report released earlier this week.
Nutritional deficiencies during the 1,000 days from conception to the child’s second birthday are critical for development. Undernourished children can also suffer cognitive disability and a limited capacity to learn, generally suffering poor health and poverty throughout their lives.
Chronic undernutrition is often unnoticed until it is severe and these children are at risk of serious damage to their health, affecting their growth, strength, and ability to fight off illness — drastically increasing rates of heart disease and diabetes, and death rates from pneumonia or diarrhea that might otherwise been avoided.
The chances of a woman surviving pregnancy is affected by her own nutritional status. Women whose growth was stunted in childhood, or have poor nutrition when they conceived, or who don’t gain enough weight during pregnancy, tend to deliver low birthweight babies who are highly susceptible to infectious disease and death. The health of mother and child are inextricably linked.
Overall, there are more than one billion undernourished people in the world. One in six goes hungry every day. An increase of 100 million more people in 2009 versus 2008 is due largely to high food prices rather than shortages. The global economic crisis is to blame.
According to UNICEF, there is some good news.
While 90 percent of the world’s children who have stunted grown live in Africa and Asia, the rate is dropping on both continents, and reducing and even eliminating undernutrition is entirely feasible.
Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months – together with nutritionally adequate foods from six months on can have a significant impact on child survival and stunting, potentially reducing the under five child mortality by 19 percent in developing countries.
Huge strides have also been made in the delivery of cost-effective solutions to undernutrition, including micronutrients, to vulnerable populations worldwide.
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.
“Lack of attention to child and maternal nutrition today will result in considerably higher costs tomorrow. With more than one billion people suffering from malnutrition and hunger, international leadership and urgent action are needed. Global commitments on food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture are part of a wider international agenda that will help address the critical issues raised in this report.” – Ann M. Veneman, UNICEF Executive Director
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