UNICEF and the Commission of the European Union collaborate to tackle desperately neglected problem of nutrition security in Asia
Bangkok/Dhaka, 6 January 2011 – Millions of children throughout Southeast and South Asia are not getting the nutrition they need for proper physical and mental development during childhood or to maximize their productivity as adults, according to UNICEF. To help fight this, the Commission of the European Union has just given a €20 million grant to UNICEF to tackle undernutrition in the region.
The Maternal and Child Nutrition Security project will benefit the entire region but place special emphasis on Bangladesh, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Nepal and the Philippines; five countries in great needs and with potential for success. Bangladesh alone accounts for six percent of the world’s underweight children and almost 50% of its children under-five years of age are undernourished in one form or another.
More than a third of child deaths and 11 per cent of the total disease burden worldwide are due to maternal and child undernutrition, according to data presented in a groundbreaking series on nutrition in The Lancet in 2008.
In terms of global stunting, UNICEF’s 2009 nutrition report Tracking Progress on Child and Maternal Nutrition: A Survival and Development Priority revealed that nearly half of the 24 countries with the largest number of chronically undernourished children are in Southeast and South Asia, despite relatively good economic growth in recent years.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily follow that as an economy gets better, nutrition gets better – it’s not a direct link,” said France Begin, UNICEF Nutrition Advisor in Asia and the Pacific. “In spite of economic growth in several countries throughout the region, we still see rates of undernutrition that are far too high.”
For years, undernutrition - manifested by a child with low height for age (stunting), low weight for age (underweight), low weight forheight (wasting), and/or deficient in vitamins or minerals (micronutrient deficiencies) -- has been a persistent problem, but one receiving little attention as well as lack of funding. In Bangladesh, the rates of stunting (48.6%), underweight (37.4%) and acute malnutrition (13.5%) remain alarmingly high, exceeding the World Health Organization's critical thresholds. In fact a range of macro and micronutrient deficiencies impair cognitive development and adequate growth and nutrition across the life cycle.
The link between economic progress and undernutrition has become a focus for economists in recent years, and this is putting the problem on the global agenda. “Undernutrition leads to increased mortality and morbidity and hence reduced economic output and increased healthcare spending,” wrote three economists in a 2008 paper on hunger and malnutrition for the Copenhagen Consensus. “The combined effects on mortality, morbidity and productivity are estimated to result in economic losses of billions of dollars.”
This increased attention to the link between undernutrition and sustainable development led the EU Commission to target maternal and child nutrition security, especially from conception to the first 2 years of life. The major grant is an important contribution to a multi-donor action, which should leverage gains for pooled resources.
During the four-year project, UNICEF will work with governments and partners to directly benefit 30 million children and 5 million pregnant and lactating women. It will also work to increase knowledge and understanding of what good nutrition means among policy makers, medical professionals and families.
The Maternal and Child Nutrition Security project aims to innovate and build on current policies and practices in countries and by doing so highlights nutrition as an Asian priority in the achievement of the Millennium Development GoalsFor more information contact: