In the developing world, 146 million children under five are underweight – and more than half of them live in South Asia.
South Asia has by far the largest prevalence of underweight in children under five in the developing world, proportionally and in numbers.
Nutrition, Survival and Development
Improving nutrition, particularly in the early years, is crucial towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Undernutrition, particularly in children, is a vice locked around humanity, preventing individuals and even whole societies from achieving their full potential. Undernourished children have lowered resistance to infection and are more likely to die from such common childhood ailments as diarrhoeal diseases and respiratory infections. Those who survive may be locked into a vicious cycle of recurring sickness and faltering growth, often with irreversible damage.
Good nutrition is the cornerstone for survival, health and development. Well-nourished women face fewer risks during pregnancy and childbirth, and their children set off on a firmer developmental path. Well-nourished children perform better in school, grow into healthier adults and are able to give their own children a better start in life.
Good nutrition has strong economic implications too. When populations are well nourished, higher individual productivity, lower health care costs and greater economic output will ensue.
MDG 1 affirms the fundamental interrelation between extreme poverty and hunger – hunger is often both a consequence and a cause of poverty. In all regions of the world, in the absence of determined public policies, people who live on low incomes tend to have worse diets than those who are better off. And people who lack adequate nutrition have to struggle harder to avoid or extricate themselves from poverty than healthier, well-nourished people.
Tackling the global nutrition problem is essential to attaining any of the other MDGs. Undernutrition is an underlying cause of an estimated 53 per cent of all under-five deaths.1 This means that MDG 4 and its associated target – reduce by two thirds the mortality rate of children under five – cannot possibly be achieved without improving the nutrition of young children and mothers.
The other health-related goals – MDG 5 on maternal health and MDG 6 on combating key diseases – are also intimately linked to nutrition, given that an undernourished body is in every way more vulnerable. Undernutrition affects children’s school attendance and performance and reflects biases in access to food and health services, areas in which women play a key role for their families. Thus, the goals on education (MDG 2) and gender equality (MDG 3) are unlikely to be achieved if the problem of undernutrition is not addressed.
1 World Health Organization, The World Health Report 2005: Make every mother and child count, WHO, Geneva, 2005.