One third of children in the developing world are stunted by malnutrition

11 November 2009

BEIJING, 11 November 2009 – Approximately 200 million children under the age of five in the developing world suffer from stunted growth as a result of chronic maternal and childhood undernutrition, according to a UNICEF report released today titled 'Tracking Progress on Child and Maternal Nutrition.'

While China has made significant progress in reducing undernutrition, approximately 40 per cent of children in rural counties are stunted. The national figure for stunting in children under five in percentage terms is comparatively low in China at 15 per cent; however, the total number, nearly 12.7 million, ranks as second highest in the world, after India.

Undernutrition contributes to more than a third of all deaths in children under five. Undernutrition is often invisible until it is severe, and children who appear healthy may be at grave risk of serious and even permanent damage to their health and development.

"Undernutrition steals a child's strength and makes illnesses that the body might otherwise fight off far more dangerous," said Ann M. Veneman UNICEF Executive Director. "More than one-third of children who die from pneumonia, diarrhoea and other illnesses could have survived had they not been undernourished."

The 1,000 days from conception until a child's second birthday are the most critical for a child's development. Nutritional deficiencies during this critical period can reduce the ability to fight and survive disease, and can impair their social and mental capacities.

"Those who survive undernutrition often suffer poorer physical health throughout their lives, and damaged cognitive abilities that limit their capacity to learn and to earn a decent income," said Veneman. "They become trapped in an intergenerational cycle of ill-health and poverty."

"Unless attention is paid to addressing the causes of child and maternal undernutrition today, the costs will be considerably higher tomorrow."

Stunted growth is a consequence of longer-term poor nutrition in early childhood. Stunting is associated with developmental problems and is often impossible to correct. A child who is stunted is likely to experience a lifetime of poor health and underachievement, so the answer lies in prevention. More than 90 per cent of the developing world's stunted children live in Africa and Asia.

Inadequate nutrition also causes children to be underweight. Underweight children experience serious similar health and developmental problems, but these issues can be remedied if nutrition and health improve later in childhood.

"China has reduced overall levels of child malnutrition in part through successful broad based economic development," said David McLoughlin, Deputy Representative and Officer in Charge of UNICEF China, "but economic growth alone is not sufficient to completely eliminate child malnutrition."

The good news is that reducing and even eliminating undernutrition is entirely feasible. Huge strides have been made in the delivery cost-effective solutions, including micronutrients, to vulnerable populations worldwide.

For example, significant progress has been made in providing children with access to iodized salt and vitamin A supplements, and this has contributed to reduced infant and child mortality. In the world's least developed countries, the percentage of children under 5 years receiving essential doses of vitamin A supplement has more than doubled, from 41 per cent in 2000 to 88 per cent in 2008.

Around 95 per cent of China's homes are provided with iodized salt to reduce iodine deficiency disorders. However, anaemia, which in China is mainly due to iron deficiency, has not decreased substantively in recent years.

Of all the proven interventions, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months – together with nutritionally adequate foods – can have a significant impact on child survival, potentially reducing the under five child mortality by 12-15 per cent in developing countries.

While 90 per cent of children who are stunted live in Asia and Africa, progress has been made on both continents.  In Asia the prevalence of stunting dropped from about 44 per cent in 1990 to an estimated 30 per cent in 2008, while in Africa it fell from around 38 per cent in 1990 to an estimated 34 per cent in 2008.

"Global commitments on food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture are part of a wider agenda that will help address the critical issues raised in this report," said Veneman. "Unless attention is paid to addressing the causes of child and maternal undernutrition today, the costs will be considerably higher tomorrow."

For further information, and to get a copy of the report, please contact:
Patrick McCormick, UNICEF New York, Tel + 1 212 326 7426
Saira Saeed Khan, UNICEF New York, Tel + 1 212 326 7224,
Kathryn Donovan, UNICEF New York, Tel + 1 212 326 7452,
Dale Rutstein, UNICEF China, Tel + 86 6532 3131 x1301,


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