Good nutrition for the most vulnerable children and mothers

UNICEF Afghanistan/Karimi

Malnutrition: Afghanistan’s silent emergency

An adequate well-balanced diet is the bedrock of child survival, health and development. Well-nourished children are more likely to be healthy, productive, and ready to learn. Undernutrition, by the same logic, is devastating. It blunts the intellect, saps productivity, and perpetuates poverty.

A country’s development needs brainpower & children need nourishment to feed the future.

Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest rates of stunting in children under the age of five: 41 per cent. Stunting is a sign of chronic undernutrition during the most critical periods of growth. It prevents children from reaching their potential. Stunted children are more likely to contract diseases, less likely to get basic health care, and do not perform well in school.

The rate of wasting in Afghanistan is also extremely high. Wasting, as its name suggests, is literally wasting away to skin and bones. The crushing result of acute malnutrition, it poses an immediate threat to a child’s survival.

Chronic nutritional deficiency in Afghanistan is largely the result of poor feeding. For example, only half of Afghan babies are exclusively breastfed in their first six months, and their exposure to contaminated liquids or foods places them at a greater risk of life-threatening illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia.

Inadequate dietary diversity and insufficient amounts of food, coupled with poor hygiene, also contribute to health risks and deaths of older children. When mothers have inadequate diets, a harmful cycle is created – malnourished infants grow up to become stunted mothers, generation after generation. 

Despite impressive improvements in the past decade, Afghanistan’s health system still faces a number of challenges. Nutrition services remain limited and healthcare providers lack training to assess and offer counselling and treatment. When nutritional issues go undetected, rates of stunting, wasting, severe acute malnutrition, and micronutrient deficiencies appear lower in statistics and receive much less focus than they should.

UNICEF Afghanistan/2016/Dragaj
Two pairs of twin girls, all five years old, stand in front of a painted wall inside a children’s day care centre in Kabul, Afghanistan. The girls on the left are stunted. Stunting is defined as a low height for age and is measured by comparing a child who suffers from stunting to a healthy child of the same age and sex.

Why we need to make a change

•    Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest rates of stunting in children under five: 41 per cent.
•    The rate of wasting, the extreme manifestation of severe acute malnutrition, in Afghanistan is extremely high: 9.5 per cent.
•    One in three adolescent girls suffers from anaemia.
•    Only half of Afghan babies are exclusively breastfed in their first six months.
•    Only 12 per cent of Afghan children aged 6-24 months receive the right variety of food in the quantity needed for their age.

Feeding every child

UNICEF Afghanistan/2016/Nybo
Nargas and her daughter Arzo, aged 15 months. The chronic nutritional deficiency in Afghanistan is largely the result of poor feeding practices.

UNICEF supports nutrition activities in 34 provinces in Afghanistan, providing quality care for children, and pregnant and lactating women.

Reaching communities with nutrition supplies
UNICEF builds the capacity of community health works and networks in deprived provinces. We provide adequate equipment, supplies, and infrastructure to deliver essential nutritional information, counselling, and support to children under five, mothers, and adolescent girls.

In Afghanistan, nearly one in three adolescent girls suffers from anaemia – a widespread public health problem which adversely affects physical growth, resistance to infections, and cognitive development, and productivity. UNICEF and the Ministries of Public Health and Education have joined forces to address the problem by introducing a Weekly Iron and Folic Acid Supplementation (WIFS) programme in schools.

Improving nutritional knowledge 
Poor feeding practices are common in Afghanistan. This is not only a result of poverty, but also of a family’s awareness, and how social norms influence its decisions.

In societies where women lack empowerment, women and children suffer from ‘poor nutrition status’, which affects their health and their ability to contribute to the country’s productivity and stability. With less than 20 per cent of Afghanistan’s infants receiving the appropriate number of meals, UNICEF is reaching women, families, and communities, especially in deprived provinces, with the knowledge and information to adopt healthy feeding habits.
Building capacities to reach the most vulnerable
UNICEF uses the latest research and tools to help partners mobilize resources that address nutrition challenges both in day-to-day and in emergency situations. 

UNICEF leads the National Nutrition Cluster, a consortium of government and NGO partners that prepare and respond to nutrition emergencies. We work with these same partners to continuously monitor the needs of children and pregnant and lactating women, as well as to identify nutritional emergencies. For example, UNICEF and the World Health Organization are setting up a National Nutrition Sentinel Surveillance System that will guide the government of Afghanistan, and other partners to collect, analyze, and disseminate data on nutrition programmes, enabling them to quickly address challenges or emergencies as they arise.

UNICEF Afghanistan/Wahidy
A child is examined for malnutrition by measuring his Mid-Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) at a UNICEF-supported clinic in the Guzzarah district of the western province of Herat, Afghanistan.

The way forward
UNICEF Afghanistan is shifting its focus to put a greater emphasis on preventing stunting, wasting, and other forms of malnutrition – while ensuring children with severe acute malnutrition continue to receive adequate treatment.