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China gains mask nutrition challenge in East Asia and Pacific

BANGKOK, 2 May 2006

China’s success in slashing the ranks of underweight children has led East Asia and the Pacific to all but achieve a universally agreed goal of cutting hunger by half, nine years ahead of the deadline, says a UNICEF report published today.

Progress for Children: A Report Card on Nutrition highlights China’s impressive progress in improving daily nutrition for millions of its youngest citizens. In the world’s most populous country, the percentage of underweight children below the age of five fell by more than half between 1990 and 2002 – from 19 per cent to 8 per cent. China’s incidence of low birth weight is now just 4 per cent – a rate comparable to that in industrialized countries. These achievements are due mainly to steady economic development over the last 15 years, government efforts in poverty eradication and universal access to education.

Excluding China, however, the picture is less glowing, according to the report. The East Asia and Pacific region is otherwise not on track to achieve the first Millennium Development Goal to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. Minus China, the region ranks ahead of South Asia, the region with the largest percentage of underweight children under five, but is not fairing much better than sub-Saharan Africa. Achieving the MDG means halving the proportion of children who are underweight for their age, the most visible sign of undernutrition.

“China’s results in nutrition are encouraging. But as a region we have no cause yet to celebrate. Undernutrition* is still a fundamental problem diminishing human potential in many places,” UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Director Anupama Rao Singh said. “In a region praised for its economic growth, this report is a stark reminder that many of the region’s children are deprived of the basic building blocks to good health.”

Good nutrition is the key to individual survival, health and development. More than simply the prevention of hunger, proper nourishment is one of the single biggest determinants of whether communities, countries and even continents teeter or thrive. In the developing world, under-nutrition, which leaves the body vulnerable to infection and disease, is a major cause of more than an estimated half of all deaths in children under the age of 5.

Timor Leste is the most undernourished country in the region – with the highest underweight and stunting levels - due to a legacy of conflict and the destruction of social services. Cambodia is also of particular concern, with data from 2000 showing it has actually lost ground towards meeting the MDG target on underweight children. And even in countries showing substantial progress, such as China, national figures often mask large disparities, with undernutrition hot-spots, especially in rural areas, co-existing with well-nourished urban populations.

For example, in the poorest rural areas in China, the proportion of underweight children under five is four of five times higher than in urban areas. Children in rural areas are 6 times more likely to die before their fifth birthday than those in urban areas. Children of migrant families, living either in cities or left behind in villages, are particularly at risk of undernutrition and hunger.

The report reveals that while Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar and the Philippines have shown progress, they are still not on course to achieve the MDG target on underweight children. However, Cambodia faces the most serious challenge in the region in this respect. Its proportion of underweight children grew from 40 per cent in 1993-1994 to 45 per cent in 2000. More children in Cambodia die before their fifth birthday than anywhere else in the region.

Both Viet Nam and Indonesia are on track to meet the MDG target, though disparities in both these countries persist. In the Indonesian province of Aceh, for example, a survey taken after the tsunami showed that 43% of children under five were underweight, far above the national average of 28%. This high figure had very little to do with the tsunami as it was similar in populations that were affected and not affected.

UNICEF and its partners are working to combat child undernutrition in the East Asia and Pacific region through a strategy that places a strong emphasis on women’s nutrition – starting with the period of pre-conception - through to the first two years of a child’s life, including exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months. The first 24-months of life are a critical window of opportunity to lock in a child’s potential. Young bodies and brains may never recover from the effects of poor nutrition during this development stage. Reaching women before and throughout pregnancy is essential to improve maternal health and nutrition to ensure optimal foetal growth and the best start to life.

The regional nutrition strategy has four pillars: reaching adolescent girls and pre-pregnant and pregnant women with information, services and supplies; increasing the nutrition content of preventive and curative health care; developing community processes to empower girls and women; and expanding the reach of effective child nutrition interventions.

*Undernutrition is defined as the outcome of insufficient food intake and repeated infectious diseases. Undernutrition includes being underweight for one's age, too short for one's age (stunted), dangerously thin (wasted) and deficient in vitamins and minerals (micronutrient malnutrition).

About UNICEF: For 60 years UNICEF has been the world’s leader for children, working on the ground in 155 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.

Note to broadcasters:

Video footage of nutrition projects worldwide is available free of charge from The Newsmarket or by visiting

For further information:

Madeline Eisner, Regional Communication Officer
UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office
Tel: (+66 2) 356 9406. Email:

Tani Ruiz, Communication Officer
UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office
Tel: (+66 2) 356 9409.





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