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The battle against child malnutrition in Malawi and across the world

Ahead of the hunger summit this month, new research suggests that malnutrition may be responsible for 45% of global deaths among children under five.

Later this month, international leaders will be meeting in London for a summit on nutrition hosted by the UK and Brazilian governments. Ahead of this gathering, the latest research (reported on by the BBC and published in the Lancet medical journal) estimates that poor nutrition leads to around 3 million young children dying each year.

This estimate of worldwide deaths has been derived from a review of malnutrition in pregnancy and childhood carried out by an international team. Led by Professor Robert Black from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the US, the team looked at nutrition intervention programmes in low- and middle-income countries. They estimated that around 900,000 lives could be saved each year across 34 countries if ten nutrition interventions were scaled up to cover nine-tenths of the world.

The team also spent time looking at the first 1,000 days in a child’s life (from conception to the age of two) and concluded (as other studies have done) that malnutrition during this vital early period can have lasting health consequences. Speaking to the BBC, Professor Black said that early nutritional deficiencies resulted in “developmental consequences” which had implications for each child’s “ability to succeed in school and ultimately in society”.

In another new report published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), experts estimate poor health and losses in productivity due to malnutrition could be costing the global economy 3.5 trillion dollars each year, or around 500 dollars for every person. The report’s authors urge the international community to invest more in agriculture and improve food supply chains, emphasising that “agriculture and the entire food system...can contribute much more to the eradication of malnutrition”.

In countries such as Malawi, recent research suggests that seasonal variations in the price of food are a major determinant of child malnutrition. Investment in better storage systems at community and household levels, so that food can be saved during harvest time, is therefore one of the report’s main suggestions for urgent development.

Speaking to Reuters, an Executive Director of the FAO said overall his organisation’s message was that “we must strive for nothing less than the eradication of hunger and malnutrition”.

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