Lifelong effects of infant malnutrition

Focus on "stunting" in China

22 February 2012

Bejing, 22 February 2012 – A global disease that condemns millions of children to a life of disadvantage before the age two also seriously affects China. This disease is called “stunting,” a little known outcome of chronic malnutrition. Stunting's effect is permanent, yet at the same time, it is preventable.

Recently UNICEF's Executive Director, Anthony Lake has written an opinion piece for Time.com called stunting ‘The global crisis you've never heard off'.  To help you better understand the stunting situation in China, we interview Dr. Robert Scherpbier, Chief of Health and Nutrition for UNICEF China. 

Question: What is stunting?

Robert Scherpbier: Stunting is the irreversible outcome of chronic nutritional deficiency during the first 1,000 days of a child's life. 

Stunting means the height of a young child measures significantly lower than the norm for 95% of standard reference population in the age group. This standard is universal for all children below 5 according to the World Health Organization.

Take a baby girl of one year old for example, if she measures shorter than 70 cm, it is possible that she is stunted. For a baby boy of one year old, the standard measure is 72 cm.

Question:  How serious is the problem for China? How many Chinese children suffer from stunting?

Robert Scherpbier: According to a UNICEF report titled Tracking progress on child and maternal nutrition, in 2006, there are an estimated 12.7 million stunted children in China. China has the second largest number of stunted children under 5, behind India.

In China, stunting is more serious in the countryside than in the cities. According to a national survey developed by the National Center of Disease Prevention, the overall stunting rate is 9.9% in 2010. It is only 3.4% in the cities, yet 12.1% in the countryside.

Question: Does stunting have a long lasting effect? Is it irrevocable?

Robert Scherpbier: The damage it causes to a child's development is permanent. That child will never learn, nor earn, as much as he or she could have if properly nourished in early life.

Stunting is a disease and a stunted child is condemned from the age of two.

Question: What is crucial to fight stunting?

Robert Scherpbier: Prevention of stunting involves measures that improve nutrition for mothers and young children. UNICEF recommends effective intervention in the following three key areas:

Improve maternal nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.

Breastfeed children within the first hour after birth, exclusive breastfeeding – not even water – for the first 6 months and continued breastfeeding up to at least 24 months of age.

Add adequate complementary feeding, along with vitamin and mineral supplements from 6 months onward.

Question: How does UNICEF help to fight stunting?

Robert Scherpbier: UNICEF is helping to ensure that every mother has the best chance to breastfeed her child exclusively for six months by training rural healthworkers on how to support and promote correct infant and young child feeding. UNICEF has also supported the development of national standards to develop simple, low cost methods to provide young children older than six months with vitamin and mineral supplements. We have helped develop, along with the Ministry of Health, the “Ying Yang Bao” food supplement packets. This is a very simple and highly effective method for improving nutrition at the time children begin to stop breast feeding.

Between 2008–2011, we distributed Ying Yang Bao to mothers and babies in 8 counties in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces benefitting 30,000 rural children. These counties saw significant reduction of childhood malnutrition and decrease in the prevalence of diarrhoea, fever and respiratory infection among young children.

In 2011, the Qinghai provincial government, in a landmark decision, announced that it would scale-up Ying Yang Bao distribution to improve infant and young child feeding in15 of its poverty counties.

Media contacts

Liu Li
Communication Specialist
UNICEF China
Tel: +86-10-85312612

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