A young girl is checked for signs of malnutrition.
The United Nations announced on April 16 that global child malnutrition has markedly decreased in the last decade. The report, part of a series of UN reports released recently on worldwide child well-being, described the decreased prevalence of stunting in children under the age of five, especially in low-resource nations. East Asia and Latin America showed the most improvement with incredible fifty- and seventy-percent decreases in stunting, respectively.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) states that a child’s first 1,000 days – from conception to two years old – are critical for predicting future outcomes. Children with poor nutrition early in life are more likely to contract childhood illnesses, suffer developmental disabilities, suffer from chronic disease, and earn less money as adults. In 2011, approximately a quarter of the world’s children – 165 million – under the age of five experienced stunted growth, more than eighty percent of which lived in just fourteen countries. This preventable condition hurts children individually but also has larger economic and social implications for entire nations when children become less healthy and less economically productive adults. Thus, the World Health Assembly has set the reduction of stunting as a “top investment priority” and aims to reduce the global prevalence of stunting by forty percent in the next twelve years.
This is no easy task. Risk factors including infectious disease, maternal under-nutrition, and poor food availability increase a child’s risk of stunting, and all of these are more common in developing countries. As a result, UNICEF has identified types of programs that work, and is working to promote them on a more national basis. Early and exclusive breastfeeding is one of the most effective strategies to limit infant malnutrition, especially in areas lacking good alternatives. Complementary food programs, such as those that give families money to buy food for their infants and children, micronutrient supplementation, and prenatal/postnatal nutrition programs for mothers have also proven effective. However, the report also acknowledges that these interventions must occur within the critical period of 1000 days; otherwise excessive weight gain may actually put the child at greater risk for obesity and the child usually cannot recover lost potential. In response, an increasing number of government leaders worldwide are implementing the Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) program, which encourages national interventions to diminish stunting and malnutrition, and inspiring action in some of the most afflicted regions.