Of the nearly 11 million children under five who die in developing countries each year – most from easily preventable causes – malnutrition shares the blame in over half.
Almost one third of young children in developing countries are malnourished – 150 million are underweight for their age, while another 175 million are stunted from chronic malnourishment.
Malnourished children who survive often have weakened immune systems and lifelong physical and mental disabilities and disadvantages. While much of this can be prevented in the early months by breastfeeding, good nutrition practices cannot stop there.
Insufficient breastfeeding, shortfalls of food and micronutrients, and illness are the most significant immediate causes of malnutrition. The underlying causes include unequal access to food in the home, poor care and feeding practices, unsafe water and sanitation, and inadequate health care. And because the effects of malnutrition cross generations, a child born to a chronically-malnourished mother is likely to be born underweight and must struggle to ever overcome this poor start.
Over 2 billion women and children worldwide suffer from micronutrient malnutrition – deficiencies in vital vitamins (Vitamin A and folate) and minerals (iodine, iron and zinc). Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are estimated to cost some countries the equivalent of more than 5 percent of their gross national product in lost lives, physical and mental disability and foregone productivity.
A Call For Change
By international law, children have the right to good nutrition. When world leaders adopted the Millennium Development Goals, they reaffirmed their obligation to protect that right. All 189 member states pledged specifically to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.
The fact is, we already have the expertise and tools to end malnutrition and many related diseases in most of the world. The tools to save lives are not expensive—antibiotics to treat pneumonia can cost as little as 15 cents. A child can be immunized against six major childhood disease for as little as $15; a one year dose of Vitamin A costs a few cents. What is needed is political will and more strategic funding.
UNICEF is working to improve the nutrition of children and women on a number of fronts, including:
Protecting, promoting and supporting early, exclusive, and continued breastfeeding and other child feeding practices. Social and health care support for mothers to succeed in breastfeeding, particularly exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of the child’s life is a key factor in early child development.
Focusing on major micronutrient deficiencies, including vitamin A deficiency, iodine deficiency disorders, and iron deficiency through food fortification, supplementation and improving diets and local environments.
Improving the nutritional status and care of pregnant women which can reduce disabilities in their infants by almost one third.
Monitoring infant growth rates and promoting good feeding behaviours and foods, particularly in the first two years of life.
Providing nutrition in emergencies by supporting therapeutic and supplementary feeding, including play and stimulation, and providing essential micronutrients and feeding orphans. Breast-feeding must be protected, and not undermined by unneeded supplies of breast-milk substitutes.
In the many areas affected by HIV/AIDS, every effort should be made to encourage pregnant women to learn their HIV status and receive counselling so they can make informed decisions about infant feeding options. Improving their nutritional status can also slow the progression of the disease.
We know that our interventions are working. Recent statistics show us that vitamin A supplementation saved a million young lives between 1998 and 2000. As a result of our work, over 70 per cent of the developing world's households now use iodized salt and over 90 million children are protected from severe mental impairment.
UNICEF is calling on national partners, NGOs and civil society to invigorate the commitment we all made to the Millennium Development Goals and end malnutrition throughout the developing world. It can be done by 2015 is we have the will.
Since its inception in 1946, UNICEF has been working to provide for the nutritional needs of children. Whether through advocating and programmatic support for optimal breastfeeding, growth monitoring and promotion programmes, providing micronutrient supplements or fortifying foods, UNICEF believes that taking action against malnutrition is both imperative and possible. It is critical to the survival, growth and development of young children.
Every year, nearly 11 million children die before reaching their fifth birthday, most from preventable causes. That is approximately, 30, 000 children per day. Another 300 million children suffer from illnesses caused by lack of clean water, poor nutrition and inadequate health services and care. Helping families ensure that their children survive and reach school age healthy and well-nourished, safe and confident and ready to learn is at the heart of UNICEF’s mission. Working in 158 countries, UNICEF is helping the world achieve the 2015 Millennium Development Goals by making every child's right to survive and thrive our top priority.
For more information contact:
Erin Trowbridge 212-326-7172
United Nations Children’s Fund
3 UN Plaza,
New York, NY 10017, USA