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A REPORT CARD ON NUTRITION: NUMBER 4, MAY 2006 View Previous Editions>


Nutrition and children
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In the developing world, one out of every four children under five years old – 27 per cent – is underweight, around 146 million children, based on the most recent estimates. Of these children, nearly three quarters live in 10 countries.

How many are underweight?

How many are underweight?

South Asia has by far the highest levels of underweight, affecting 46 per cent of all under-five children in the region. In sub-Saharan Africa, 28 per cent of children are underweight; the lowest prevalences are in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS, with 5 per cent) and Latin America/Caribbean (7 per cent).

Similar patterns are seen in the prevalence of stunting – where children’s height is low for their age, a telling indicator of chronic undernutrition – and wasting, where children’s weight is low for their height, a measure of acute undernutrition that often appears in emergency situations. South Asia has the highest levels in the world, with 44 per cent of its children stunted and 15 per cent wasted, considerably in excess of rates in most other regions. Sub-Saharan Africa has the next highest proportion of stunted children, with 41 per cent in Eastern/Southern Africa and 35 per cent in West/Central Africa; the proportion of children wasted is next highest in West/Central Africa (10 per cent), the Middle East/North Africa (8 per cent) and Eastern/Southern Africa (7 per cent). As with underweight, the CEE/CIS and Latin America/Caribbean regions show the lowest prevalences of stunting, 14 per cent and 16 per cent, respectively, and wasting, at 3 per cent and 2 per cent.

Some progress has been made, and the proportion of underweight children in developing countries declined from 33 per cent to 28 per cent between 1990 and 2004.3 During this time, the sharpest decline occurred in the East Asia/Pacific region, where prevalence decreased from 25 per cent to 15 per cent. This improvement was primarily driven by gains in China, where underweight prevalence was reduced by more than half; China contributes 59 per cent of the region’s under-five population. South Asia has also made progress, although the current levels clearly remain high. Latin America/Caribbean, too, reduced the prevalence of underweight.

But little improvement has been seen in sub-Saharan Africa, where underweight prevalence remained roughly the same over the 1990–2004 period. In fact, given this lack of progress and due to population growth, the total number of underweight children actually increased in sub-Saharan Africa.



3  Prevalence estimates will differ slightly from estimates based on the trend analysis, as the current prevalence was estimated based on data for 110 countries and the trend analysis was based on data for a subset of 73 countries where data were available for the period 1990–2004.