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Statement by UNICEF Executive Director, Ann M. Veneman, on the launch of ‘Progress for Children: A Report Card on Nutrition’

NEW YORK, 2 May 2006 – Good morning and thank you to all of you for joining us today.   We are pleased to be here this morning to talk about UNICEF’s comprehensive report on child malnutrition around the world.

In my first year with UNICEF, I have visited many developing countries.  It is clear that nutrition is the foundation on which all human progress is built.

Nutrition profoundly affects life at every stage of development, starting before a child is even born.  It helps determine how healthy a child will be, how fast she will grow, how easily she will resist diseases, how well she will learn at school and whether her own children will reach their full potential.

Unfortunately too many people, from individuals and families to policy-makers and leaders, are unaware of the vital importance of nutrition and how serious undernutrition is around the world.

One underweight and undernourished child is an individual tragedy.  But multiplied by tens of millions, undernutrition becomes a global threat to societies and to economies.

‘Underweight’ is the indicator that is used for malnutrition because it is one of the most visible and easily measured attributes, and because it correlates strongly with disease and premature death.

This report, ‘Progress for Children,’ reveals where we stand on the first Millennium Development Goal, which has a target of cutting in half by the year 2015 the world’s proportion of underweight children.

There is now less than a decade to achieve all the Millennium Development Goals and the conclusions of this report on nutrition are disturbing.

Malnutrition is a global epidemic.  In a time of plenty, it is estimated that more than one-quarter of all children under the age of five are seriously underweight.

In developing countries, about 146 million children, or 27 per cent, fall into that category.  Global rates have fallen only five percentage points since 1990.

At our current pace, we will not meet the promise of the Millennium Development Goals to cut the rate in half by the year 2015.

It is estimated that persistent undernourishment is a contributing cause in at least 5.6 million under-five child deaths every year.

But underweight children are just the tip of the iceberg.  While millions of children are eating enough to fend off hunger, they are missing the critical vitamins and minerals they need.

Something as simple as a lack of iodine in diets is the leading cause of preventable brain damage in children worldwide and can lower the average IQ in iodine-deficient regions by up to 13 points.

Vitamin-A deficiency can make a child significantly more likely to die from a common childhood disease like measles. 

And every year, iron deficiency means tens of thousands of pregnant women will not live to see their babies born.

The report gives a detailed breakdown of progress against malnutrition by country and by region.  Only two out of seven developing-country regions are making sufficient progress to meet the Millennium Development Goal target.

The worst crisis is in South Asia, where almost one in two children under age five is underweight, or 46 per cent.

In India alone, 7.8 million babies are born underweight every year.

Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has been largely stagnating, with 28 per cent of its children underweight.  Children in this region live in an almost constant state of emergency, fueled by war, famine and other crises.

HIV/AIDS is putting additional strain on communities that are already struggling to find adequate food, and leaving children alone and vulnerable.

Conflict has been a factor that has put some countries into a sharp nutrition decline.  Sudan has higher proportions of underweight children now than it did 15 years ago.

To give you examples from individual countries around the world, the rate is 48 per cent undernutrition in Nepal and Bangladesh, 47 per cent in India and Ethiopia, and
46 per cent in Yemen and Timor-Leste.

The highest rate in the West and Central Africa region is 40 per cent in Niger, the highest rate in Latin America and the Caribbean is 23 per cent in Guatemala, and the highest rate in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States is 14 per cent in Albania.  Compare that to only about two per cent in the United States.

But there are bright spots in every region, as well, and there is particularly good news in China.  The country with the highest population on Earth has already met the Millennium Development Goal target regarding underweight children, 10 years ahead of schedule.

The proportion of underweight children in China dropped from 19 per cent in 1990 to eight per cent in 2002, thanks in part to a strong government commitment to make nutrition a priority.  This dramatic progress shows we can make swift advances in a very short time if we take a comprehensive approach to a child’s needs.

We cannot blame this epidemic on food shortages alone.  These numbers reflect broken health and education systems in countries, poor governance and corruption, and a widespread failure to provide basic services, such as clean water and sanitation.  With 2.6 billion people living without a simple toilet, diarrhea has become one of the world’s leading causes of child deaths and malnutrition.

The data in this report also shows the importance of keeping mothers healthy and educated, especially in the developing world.  Millions of women and girls come into pregnancy too young and too often.

Far too many are malnourished themselves and very few spend their teenage years in school.  This impairs their ability to bear, raise and care for healthy children.

At least 20 million babies are born underweight every year around the world, which of course is a leading cause of child deaths.

With so much at stake, we are long overdue for a different approach to malnutrition.

Food aid alone is not enough.  Reversing the trends in this report means taking a holistic approach to what keeps children healthy and developing properly.  This includes healthy mothers during pregnancy, better education, effective disease control and policies that safeguard food access, even in times of crisis.

The report stresses a focus on protecting children from conception to age two.  If a child falls behind during this critical development stage, he or she might never catch up.

In addressing the underlying causes of malnutrition, there are simple, practical things we can do that make an enormous difference.  The global campaign to iodize salt, for example, is bringing iodine to almost 70 per cent of all households and protecting 82 million newborns per year against deficiency.

The UNICEF-supported Accelerated Child Survival and Development program in West Africa has managed to reduce child deaths by an estimated 20 per cent in some areas by delivering a simple, integrated package of nutrients and health care to families.

It is time to believe in, and invest in, the scaling up of these programmes – programmes that yield results for children.  We need a united plan of action linking governments, the development community and the private sector.

I am very pleased to be here with a tireless warrior on hunger and nutrition issues, my colleague and friend Catherine Bertini, who has long served as Chair of the United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition.  She will soon be handing this role on to UNICEF, and it will be a privilege and a big responsibility to coordinate the UN’s efforts to fight undernutrition over the next decade.

We can make headway.  We have seen clear signs that point the way forward and evidence that our strategies work.

While our goals are ambitious, they are not impossible, and they show a future where children have an equal chance to fulfil their unique potential.

It is now my pleasure to introduce Catherine Bertini.

I first came to know her when we both worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Food and Consumer Services.

In 1992, she was appointed Executive Director of the World Food Program, the first American woman to head a UN agency.

From 2000 to 2001, she served as the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Drought in the Horn of Africa.

In August 2002, she began her tenure as Chair of the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition.

In 2003, in Iowa, she was awarded the World Food Prize for her work in addressing hunger and nutrition issues.

She served for more than two years as Under-Secretary-General for Management, from January 2003 to April 2005.

We are pleased that we can welcome her today with us.  Thank you so much for being here.





2 May 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on the launch of ‘Progress for Children: A Report Card on Nutrition’.

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