Stunted growth means children are more vulnerable to illness, frequently find learning at school more difficult and enter adulthood with poorer chances of earning a good living. Where the problem of inadequate diet is even greater, severe acute malnutrition is life-threatening, responsible for approximately a third of deaths among under-fives.
Among global development agencies, the seriousness of inadequate nutrition and its long-term consequences are now better understood. Therefore, the UN’s child agency, UNICEF, points to a scaling up of nutrition programmes which target children during the critical period from pregnancy to the age of 2. This has led to many more successful interventions among vulnerable mothers and their children and UNICEF charts the results in its latest report, ‘Improving Child Nutrition’.
The report highlights a number of encouraging success stories, such as Ethiopia and Rwanda in Africa, where significant declines in stunting have been recorded. But worryingly, there are still a number of African countries where progress is non-existent or “insufficient”.
In Burundi, for example, the UNICEF report concludes that the country has made “no progress” towards its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 1 of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. This means that Burundi has the second highest stunting prevalence (58%) among 21 countries where stunting affects more than two-fifths of under-fives.
Lack of nutrition is a key factor which contributes to high child mortality. In 2010, there were 139 deaths among children under-five in Burundi for every 1,000 live births. The country’s MDG target is to reduce this figure to 61 deaths by 2015, but with the huge gap between this target and current rates, such a goal currently looks unachievable.
Some progress has been made towards increasing the number of mothers who breastfeed exclusively in the first 5 months, where rates have risen from 62% in 1995 to 69% in 2011. However, the nutritional needs of children from the age of 6–23 months are poorly met. Less than 1 in 10 children in Burundi receive the minimum acceptable diet in terms of the frequency and quality of meals needed for healthy growth.
Without significant new investment in improving nutrition, stunting in Burundi therefore looks set to continue to take its toll on the health and prosperity of the country’s people.