High levels of stunting in Zambia mean many children are not getting the best start in life.

A child smiles as he is measured for height at a heath centre in Zambia

The challenge

The period between gestation and six years is the most significant part of the life cycle of the child. This is when their cognitive and physical future is decided. According to the Lancet Series 2013, nutrition-related factors are responsible for up to 45 per cent of all child mortality globally.

UNICEF considers poor nutrition as one of the main drivers of high maternal and child mortality figures. Even when malnutrition is not directly responsible for deaths, the nutrition status negatively influences other diseases, aggravating the poor physical condition of children and women. However, malnutrition is the least addressed public health problem in Zambia, despite being the most widespread.

In Zambia, the prevalence rate of stunting is 40 per cent. A further 9 per cent of children have a low birth weight of less than 2.5 kg. This is indicative of intra-uterine growth retardation and maternal malnutrition. In most instances, this is not something that is detected, as a large number of newborns are not weighed at birth. Micronutrient deficiencies are also common among children in Zambia. Anaemia, which is a severe public health issue, has not seen any significant reduction among children between the ages of 6 - 59 months over the past two decades. The latest national micronutrient survey indicates a vitamin A deficiency prevalence of 54 per cent among children under five. In addition, the 2013 National Iodine Deficiency Impact Survey indicates only 53 per cent of households consume adequately iodised salt.

Nutrition issues in numbers:

  • 40 per cent of children under five years stunted
  • 65 per cent of children breasted within one hour of birth
  • 73 per cent of children 0-6 months exclusively breastfed
  • 53 per cent of population consuming adequately iodised salt at household level
  • 60 per cent prevalence of anaemia in children aged 6-59 months

Nutrition is an essential component of economic growth and development. The economic consequences of malnutrition represent losses of 11 per cent of gross domestic product every year in Africa and Asia, whereas preventing malnutrition delivers US$16 in returns on investment for every one dollar spent.

The solution

UNICEF focuses on a number of key areas to boost child nutrition in Zambia:

  • Increasing national capacity to operationalise policies for scaled-up, equity-focused, multi-sectoral and high-impact nutrition interventions.
  • Assisting parents, caregivers and communities to apply optimal nutrition and care practices, with a focus on the first 1,000 days of life.
  • Setting up monitoring and planning systems on the nutritional status of children.

Zambia was one of the first countries to join the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, in early 2011. Following this, the country launched the first ever multi-sectoral National Food and Nutrition Strategic Plan 2011-2015 and the First 1,000 Most Critical Days Programme 2013-2015 with the prevention and reduction of stunting becoming a national priority.

This unprecedented awareness raising of the nutrition profile culminated into the endorsement of the Global Nutrition for Growth Compact by Zambia in June 2013 at a nutrition side event at the G8 Summit. This endorsement highlighted the Government’s commitment to reduce the prevalence of stunting among under five children by 50 per cent over the next ten years. Both the National Food and Nutrition Strategic Plan and Most Critical Days Plan are being revised in line with the Seventh National Development Plan 2017-2021.

UNICEF’s strategies for nutrition ensure the Scaling Up Nutrition Framework, which was endorsed by the Government of Zambia in 2011, are aligned to the National Food and Nutrition Strategic Plan and the National First 1,000 Most Critical Days Programme.

UNICEF supports the Government in the development and implementation of high-impact nutrition interventions for children and mothers to reduce the prevalence of stunting. This includes prioritising the reduction in stunting in children under two years of age; the adoption of nutrition-sensitive national policies, strategies and plans in the health, agriculture, education, social protection and water and sanitation sectors; and scaling up the national package of nutrition-specific interventions under the health sector.

Through supporting the national Infant and Young Child Feeding Programme, UNICEF aims to build and strengthen the capacity of health workers and community volunteers to empower parents and caregivers to make decisions that will improve the quality of Infant and Young Child Feeding practices.