Chronic malnutrition, a deadly and widespread crisis largely overlooked in the face of food scarcity, currently impacts one in four children across the globe and places almost half a billion children at risk of permanent damage within the next 15 years.
A new report by Save the Children,A Life Free from Hunger: Tackling Child Malnutrition (pdf), reveals chronic malnutrition, the lack of proper nutrition over time, if far more extensive than short-term acute malnutrition frequently associated with food crises.
“Malnutrition is a largely hidden crisis, but it afflicts one in four children around the world,” said Carolyn Miles, President and CEO of Save the Children, in a statement. “It wreaks lifelong damage and is a major killer of children. Every hour of every day, 300 children die because of malnutrition.”
Weakening young children’s immune systems, chronic malnutrition leaves them at increased risk of death from childhood diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria. It leads to 2 million child deaths each year.
Chronic malnutrition also greatly increases vulnerabilities of extreme suffering and death associated with the acute malnutrition seen in emergency food crises, such as currently seen in the Horn of Africa. In total, malnutrition is behind 2.6 million child deaths each year, a third of all child deaths globally.
Among the new study’s findings, one in four children, worldwide, are stunted and the figure is as high as one in three in developing countries. Simply put, this means their bodies and brains have failed to develop properly due to malnutrition.
Just thirty-six countries are home to 90 percent of the planet’s malnourished children Twenty countries are responsible for 80 percent of stunted children. In India, 48 percent of children are stunted.
Based on current trends, seven countries will see an increase in numbers of stunted children by 2015. Leading the list, Nigeria is expected to have an additional 2.6 million stunted children. By 2020, Tanzania is projected to see an additional 450,000 stunted children.
Malnutrition in children impacts them for life. Adults malnourished as children earn, on average, 20 percent less than their counterparts who suffered no malnutrition.
In 1990, the proportion of stunted children worldwide was 40 percent. This number fell to 27 percent in 2010, an average of just 0.6 percentage points annually.
Compared to other global health crises, progress in reducing malnutrition has been “extremely slow” over the last 20 years, and the report calls on world leaders to make malnutrition a central effort in addressing global food security. “Investment in agriculture is clearly important to making sure production keeps up with a growing population,” Miles added. “But let’s not forget, right now the world produces enough food to feed everybody, and yet one third of children in developing countries are malnourished. Clearly, just growing more food is not the answer.”
Save the Children cites seminal research published in the Lancet medical journal in 2008, 13 basic interventions which could address the majority of malnutrition. Of particular note is the critical 1,000 day window between conception and the age of two. Among these interventions are breastfeeding for avoiding contaminated water, an introduction of food varieties for infants, and a strengthening of basic staples and vitamin supplementation.