East Asia and the Pacific is a region that has seen great economic progress in recent decades, but not equal progress on reducing malnutrition. The region has experienced a 69 percent reduction in stunting (low height for age) over a twenty year period, the largest reduction for any region. Despite these improvements, there are still more than 85 million children under the age of five who are chronically malnourished or stunted. Several countries, including Laos, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste, have stunting rates above 30 or 40 percent.
Stunted children are more likely to complete fewer years of school, have lower productivity as adults, and suffer from obesity and chronic diseases in adulthood. National averages hide significant disparities, with stunting rates about two to three times higher in the poorest families compared to the richest. Rural children are also more stunted than children living in urban areas.
The region is also confronted with other forms of malnutrition such as wasting (acute malnutrition) and micronutrient deficiencies, particularly anaemia, which is a significant public health problem in about a third of all countries in the region. In contrast, most countries now have adequate iodine status which is the result of increased coverage with adequately iodized salt, a programme that has long been supported by UNICEF and partners.
Similarly, vitamin A deficiency in young children is believed to have declined, largely due to high and sustained coverage of vitamin A supplementation in young children and reduced incidence of infectious diseases. While several countries are still battling to address under-nutrition, some of them such as China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are starting to experience increased numbers of overweight children. It is no longer rare to see both under-nutrition and overweight co-existing in the same community.
Across the region, only 28 percent of infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. This is one of the lowest rates of exclusive breastfeeding in the world. In about a third of the countries in the region, fewer than half of newborn babies are put to the breast within the first hour of birth. Complementary feeding practices are also poor, particularly with regards to frequency of feedings, food quality and diversity. Lack of awareness, cultural beliefs and poverty are partly responsible for inadequate practices.
UNICEF in action
To improve child and maternal nutrition, UNICEF is advocating for strong infant and young children feeding policies and the scale-up of proven interventions from pregnancy through the first two years of life. These include maternal nutrition, early and exclusive breastfeeding, appropriate and high-quality complementary food, and appropriate micronutrient interventions.
We also work with governments and development partners to build nutrition capacity at national, district and community levels. Because other sectors than health can play a significant role in reducing under-nutrition, we also work with sectors such as water and sanitation, early childhood development and social policy to support integrated service delivery. Improving data collection and monitoring is another key area for support.
UNICEF works with a wide range of partners, including governments, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, other UN agencies, and non-governmental and academic institutions, to improve women’s and children’s nutrition in the region. We also partner with the European Union to improve nutrition security in five Asian countries, with the potential to support successful approaches across the region and ensure that other countries benefit.
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Data and statistics
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