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In London, an historic opportunity to tackle global undernutrition

By Samuel Hendricks

• Update: London conference delivers new hope for children in the battle against stunting and other forms of undernutrition - UNICEF (press release)

World leaders sign global agreement to help beat hunger and malnutrition (Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland website - includes Global Nutrition for Growth Compact [PDF] and Nutrition for Growth Commitments [PDF])

NEW YORK, United States of America, 7 June 2013 – Between 2005 and 2012 in Haiti, a coordinated effort to address childhood malnutrition helped reduce stunting levels from 29 per cent to 22 per cent. This significant achievement came as a result of government-led initiatives such as food distribution for the most vulnerable, community-based nutrition counselling and integrated management of acute malnutrition.

It also occurred in spite of the devastating 2010 earthquake that left 1.3 million Haitians food-insecure.

On 8 June, a high-level international meeting will be held in London, Nutrition for Growth: Beating Hunger through Business and Science. The event, co-hosted by the Governments of Brazil and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, along with the Children's Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), will bring together business leaders, scientists, governments and civil society to make financial and political commitments to help provide the right nutrition to millions of pregnant women and infants around the world, and to reduce cases of stunting and deaths from severe acute malnutrition.

The event is a critical opportunity for world leaders to make a strong commitment to supporting countries scaling up their nutrition programmes in the battle against stunting and other forms of malnutrition. It is also an opportunity for those countries most affected by stunting to demonstrate their leadership and commitment in tackling undernutrition through multi-sectoral, coordinated approaches.

Need for action

Stunting affected more than a quarter (26 per cent) of the world's children under 5 in 2011 – roughly 165 million – a result of chronic undernutrition during the most critical periods of growth and development in early life. This figure reflects both the urgent need for action and the real progress that has been made in fighting global malnutrition. In 1990, it was 40 per cent who were stunted.

Through new commitments of governments, the private sector and specialized agencies, the London meeting will aim to reduce the number of stunted children by an additional 20 million by 2020 in the 20 highest-burdened countries. These countries lie predominantly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, with 80 per cent of the world's stunted children living in just 14 countries.

The fight against undernutrition is a global imperative. According to new research published this week in the British medical journal The Lancet, undernutrition causes 45 per cent of child deaths, resulting in 3.1 million deaths annually. Moreover, stunting causes irreversible physical and mental damage, leading to poor performance in school and lower income-generation later in life. The net effect of these conditions is increased inequity and a continual cycle of poverty.

The gains made in Haiti and elsewhere demonstrate it is possible to end stunting and other forms of undernutrition – provided there is strong leadership, sufficient resources and sustained commitment. As UNICEF Chief of Nutrition Werner Schultink explains, chronic undernutrition has broad social and economic impacts. "If you want to tackle poverty, you need to tackle stunting," he says.

Need for action

The cost of prevention and treatment of undernutrition is low in comparison to the long-term costs of inaction. Most critical is providing adequate nutrition during the thousand days from the start of a woman's pregnancy to the child's second birthday. "We can prevent stunting, and at relatively little cost," says UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, who will attend the Nutrition for Growth event. "All it takes are micronutrients, hand-washing, breastfeeding, good child-feeding practices and community nutrition programmes."

Through its presence at country, regional and global levels, UNICEF is uniquely placed to support countries through policy development, programme implementation and monitoring. It has also been instrumental in supporting Scaling Up Nutrition, or SUN, a global movement that aims to address malnutrition at country level through the collective efforts of governments, civil society, the United Nations, donors, businesses and researchers, recognizing that malnutrition has multiple causes – and that its solution has multiple benefits.

Ending stunting and other forms of undernutrition is achievable and affordable, and the London meeting is an historic chance for world leaders to rise to the occasion.

"The fact is that you don't need new, innovative, expensive technology," says Chief of Nutrition Werner Schultink. "Things are really quite simple."





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