Proper nutrition is a powerful good: children who are well nourished are more likely to be healthy, productive and able to learn. Malnutrition is, by the same logic, devastating. It blunts intellect, saps productivity, and perpetuates poverty for any family and society it touches.
While significant progress has been made in ensuring proper nutrition for children, challenges remain throughout the world. For Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA), stunting, also referred to as chronic malnutrition, is of a particular concern with 26 million, or close to 40 percent of children under five years of age are suffering from it.
“One of the most compelling investments is to get nutrients to the world’s undernourished. The benefit from doing so – in terms of increased health, schooling, and productivity – are tremendous.” - Vernon Smith, Nobel laureate economist
In addition, 15 per cent of under-fives are underweight (they weigh too little for their age); and 6 percent are suffering from acute malnutrition (also called wasting, meaning that they rapidly lose weight because of illness or lack of food). Unlike underweight and wasting, stunting is largely irreversible, and it is affecting more children than the first two conditions combined in the region.
There are many factors contributing to malnutrition. One of the most significant is the low rate of exclusive breastfeeding from birth to six months of a child’s life. Studies have shown that exclusive breastfeeding is one of the single most effective interventions to combat child mortality. Yet, in ESA, less than half of infants are being exclusively breastfed in that crucial period.
Furthermore, inadequate complementary feeding for children older than six months, low consumption of iodized salt by households, low vitamin A coverage for children under-five, and anaemia during pregnancy, all contribute to malnutrition in children.
The visual below illustrates the complex and related causes and long-term impacts of malnutrition.
UNICEF in Action
As data have confirmed, malnutrition starts in utero and increase markedly from three to 23 months of age. Ensuring adequate nutrition during this critical ‘1000 days window of opportunity’, therefore, is critical in preventing long-term and irreversible damage to children’s health, cognitive and physical development.
Routes to better nutrition:
Together with more than 100 organizations and groups, UNICEF is a partner in the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, a global effort to advance health and development through improved nutrition at country levels. The partnership focuses on implementing evidenced-based nutrition interventions and integrating nutrition goals into broader health, development and agricultural efforts.
To help tackle the widespread and growing problem of malnutrition, UNICEF, together with the European Union launched Africa’s Nutrition Security Partnership (ANSP) to improve nutrition security among women and young children on the continent. The partnership aims to address the root causes of malnutrition, and to create an environment of pro-nutrition policy and programmes.
In addition, UNICEF also works in the following areas:
Infant and young child feeding
HIV and nutrition
Integrated management of severe acute malnutrition
Results for Children
Over the years, awareness of nutrition issues, particularly stunting, has increased, thanks to advocacy informed by researches. Sixteen out of the 21 countries in ESAR now have improved nutrition plans that no longer treat nutrition as a standalone sector, but one that needs to be integrated with health, agriculture, sanitation, welfare, education and others.
Twelve countries are in the SUN partnerships, with Burundi and Kenya being the newest signatories.
Ten countries have all or most of the provisions of the Code for Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes as law, with Kenya and South Africa having just recently passed this into legislation.
Most countries in the region have bi-annual mass vitamin A supplementation as part of the Child Health Day campaign, together with other high impact interventions such as de-worming, immunization and distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito nets.
Countries are increasingly recognizing Integrated Management of Acute Malnutrition as part of the minimum core package of nutrition interventions. Seventeen of the 21 countries in the region have begun to build national capacities to scale up this approach.
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