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UNICEF report reveals shocking cost of malnutrition and outlines unprecedented chance to defeat it

By Chris Niles

Stunting is low height for age in children. In tackling child undernutrition, there has been a shift from efforts to reduce the prevalence of underweight – inadequate weight for age – to prevention of stunting.

There is better understanding of the crucial importance of nutrition during the critical 1,000-day period covering pregnancy and the first two years of a child’s life, and of the fact that stunting reflects deficiencies during this period.

The damage that stunting causes to a child’s development is irreversible. Undernutrition early in life has major consequences for future educational, income and productivity outcomes.

A new report by UNICEF reveals the high prevalence of stunting in children under 5, but also outlines the tremendous opportunities that exist to make it a problem of the past.

UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on a UNICEF report that highlights the extent of stunting among the world's children.  Watch in RealPlayer


NEW YORK, United States of America, 15 April 2013 – A new UNICEF report reveals the shocking prevalence of stunting in children under the age of 5.

One in four children under 5 suffer from chronic undernutrition – with devastating long-term consequences both for them, and for the economic well-being of their communities.

Damage largely irreversible

Improving Child Nutrition: The achievable imperative for global progress says that the damage caused by lack of good nutrition in the first five years of life is largely irreversible.

Stunted children achieve less in school, are paid less when they enter the workforce and are at much greater risk of becoming overweight and developing chronic diseases later in life.

UNICEF correspondent Sarah Crowe talks to UNICEF Chief of Nutrition Werner Schultink about the compelling evidence shown by the nutrition report.  Watch in RealPlayer


One third of all deaths of children under 5 are attributable to undernutrition.

A 2007 study estimated that, on average, a child who is stunted runs the risk of earning nearly a quarter less income in adulthood than if she or he had been well nourished.

“We know for sure that, unless you provide good nutrition, something goes terribly wrong later on in life,” said UNICEF Chief of Nutrition Werner Schultink.

Watch a video interview with UNICEF Chief of Nutrition Werner Schultink.

Tremendous opportunities exist

But the report also outlines the tremendous opportunities that exist to make stunting a problem of the past. Countries such as Ethiopia, the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, Haiti and Peru have had significant success in reducing undernutrition – once it was prioritized.

The cure is not expensive, but it requires critical timing. Stunting can be prevented simply, if it is treated even before the baby leaves the womb.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2012-1980/Noorani
A community health volunteer measures the arm of Nirmila, 2, in Biraltoli village, Nepal. Nirmila, who is still being breastfed, is not malnourished. The screening is part of a UNICEF/EU-supported nutrition security programme.

“What really counts is to intervene very early in life, between pregnancy and the first two years,” said Mr. Schultink. “And we know that, if you try to do too much after that very small window in the period of a life cycle, you’re too late.”

Establishing good nutrition is about more than just food. Educating mothers about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months is crucial, but so is ensuring that the child is immunized, has clean drinking water and knows simple health measures such as hand-washing with soap.

The burden of stunting is disproportionate. Eighty per cent of stunted children live in just 14 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. So the issue is closely tied to equitable and sustainable poverty reduction.

“We need to put people on the right track in life. If you want to tackle poverty, you need to tackle stunting,” Mr. Schultink said.



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