Effects of malnutrition on the world’s children

Feb 15, 2012 12:00 PM

In a new report released by Save the Children – ‘A Life Free from Hunger’ – the organisation highlights the stark facts about malnutrition among children.

One in four children worldwide are stunted (four-fifths living in just 20 countries) due to lack of adequate food. This means that 170 million children are not only physically shorter and weaker than normal, they are much less likely to do well at school, since a child’s body and brain fail to develop properly with malnutrition.

For example, iodine deficiency, caused by a lack of specific nutrients, affects one third of school-age children in developing countries and causes a loss of 10-15 IQ points. Moving into adulthood, surveys have shown that stunted children go on to earn an average 20% less than others. The report therefore argues that helping to provide adequate food to children is one way to ensure families work their way out of poverty and also to boost the overall productivity and development of a nation.

Progress has been made over the last twenty years. The proportion of stunted children across the world fell from 40% in 1990 to 27% in 2010. However, this only represents an improvement of 0.6 percentage points each year. And with rising food costs, the number of malnourished children is actually growing in some countries. From a survey conducted for the report among five countries (India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru and Bangladesh), concern about the rising price of food was acute. Many families say it is the most pressing issue they face in their daily lives. At least half of all respondents in four of the five countries surveyed said they were only sometimes or even never, able to afford nutritious foods such as meat, milk or vegetables to feed their families. In Nigeria, three-quarters said they were not able to afford such food ‘often’.

For some children, their poor diet is not enough to ensure survival. Malnutrition is the underlying cause of death for 2.6 million youngsters annually, which means each hour of the day, 300 children die from lack of adequate food. But because malnutrition is not listed as an official cause of death on certificates, the problem is never effectively addressed. Now Save the Children is calling for more direct intervention programmes, where children are provided with supplements containing essential nutrients. A cost-effective package of 13 vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A and zinc, could prevent the deaths of almost 2 million children under five if delivered to the countries where the majority of the world’s malnourished children live. The World Bank estimates that 4 billion people could be reached with fortified wheat, iron, food and micronutrient powders at a mere cost of just over 1 dollar per person annually.

Save the Children wants a ‘Hunger Summit’ to be held this year when leaders come to attend the Olympics. The summit could cover topics such as social protection schemes for families living in poverty and the global food system, where more investment is needed in small-scale and female farmers. The charity calls on world leaders to recognise the role of nutrition in saving children’s lives and to dedicate time and resources to ending malnutrition. Otherwise, and at current trends, another 450 million children over the next 15 years will have their lives blighted by inadequate food and stunting.

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Zimbabwean children: SOS Children works to help children in Zimbabwe in our three SOS Children’s Villages.