Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Massive worldwide epidemic of child malnutrition

recommended at My Left Wing

I know this is fairly out of character for me to be writing about, but I just saw a new report just issued by UNICEF that paints a very bleak picture for the future of children worldwide, and thus, the future of society as a whole.

There have been a few articles out today that note this study, and the results, prognosis, and root causes just left me speechless (which as many of you know is a pretty tough thing to do).

I'll summarize parts of this report below, but just know that over 25% of the world's children in developing countries is dangerously underweight. This leads to nearly 3,000,000 child deaths per year. Additionally, the report indicates that this number is way up in certain countries, including Iraq because of "conflicts" in that country.

The report is called "Progress For Children: A Report Card on Nutrition", and it finds that 146,000,000 children are at risk of dying due to being undernourished. ONE HUNDRED FORTY SIX MILLION CHILDREN. Nearly half of these children live in Pakistan (8 million), India (57 million) and Bangladesh (8 million). With all of the money and attention we are spending on our new best friend in the war on terror, as well as the newest member of the nook-you-lur club (with our blessing), how many of these children could be saved, or given a chance with a fraction of the money that is spent on new ways to bomb people back to the stone age?

And here is the money quote from Unicef's executive director, Ann Veneman:

"The lack of progress to combat malnutrition is damaging children and nations...Few things have more impact than nutrition on a child's ability to survive, learn effectively and escape a life of poverty."


"Hunger and undernutrition lead and contribute to some of the world's most intractable problems....It contributes significantly to a cycle of poverty. It hurts children in their ability to learn. It hurts children in their ability to develop and it hurts children in their ability to resist serious diseases."

There are actually a number of "Millenium Development Goals" that were developed and agreed upon in the international community. However, there hasn't been enough progress to date, and there is serious doubt as to whether the goal of cutting the number of people who suffer from hunger in half by 2015.

There are obvious benefits of not being undernourished, including:

Well-nourished women face fewer risks during pregnancy and childbirth, and their children set off on a firmer developmental path. Well-nourished children perform better in school, grow into healthier adults and are able to give their own children a better start in life.

Good nutrition has strong economic implications too. When populations are well nourished, higher individual productivity, lower health care costs and greater economic output will ensue.

On the flip side, the results of undernutrition or malnourishment are devastating.

When individuals are undernourished, they can no longer maintain natural bodily capacities, such as growth, resisting infections and recovering from disease, learning and physical work, and pregnancy and lactation in women. Poor feeding of infants and young children, especially the lack of optimal breastfeeding and responsive complementary feeding, along with such illnesses as diarrhoea, pneumonia, malaria and HIV/AIDS, often exacerbated by helminths, are major causes of undernutrition.

Nutritional Indicators

This link contains a number of nutritional indicators that don't paint a pretty picture. Among them include the following:

Low Birthweight

More than 20 million infants are born each year weighing less than 2,500 grams (5.5 pounds), accounting for 17 per cent of all births in the developing world - a rate more than double the level in industrialized countries (7 per cent). Infants with low birthweight are at higher risk of dying during their early months and years. Those who survive are liable to have an impaired immune system and may suffer a higher incidence of such chronic illnesses as diabetes and heart disease in later life.

Breastfeeding Issues

Exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life stimulates babies' immune systems and protects them from diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections - two of the major causes of infant mortality in the developing world - and improves their responses to vaccination. Particularly in unhygienic conditions, however, breastmilk substitutes carry a high risk of infection and can be fatal in infants. Yet only slightly more than one third of all infants in developing countries are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life.

Not to mention the fact that malnourished mothers have problems of their own that make this more difficult.

Iodine Deficiency

An iodine-deficient diet results in insufficient thyroid hormone production, which can prevent normal growth in the brain and nervous system and lead to poor school performance, reduced intellectual ability and impaired work capacity. Iodine deficiency is particularly damaging during early pregnancy and childhood, yet it is easily preventable through the iodization of salt.

Vitamin A Supplements

Vitamin A is essential for immune system functions and the survival, growth and development of children. The provision of high-dose supplements every four to six months has a dramatic impact on the health of children aged 6-59 months, reducing the risk of mortality by up to 23 per cent.

Iron Deficiency

Around two billion people worldwide suffer from anaemia, most commonly iron-deficiency anaemia, a major cause of maternal deaths and of cognitive deficits in young children; it can permanently affect later motor development and school performance. Anaemia also has a negative impact on the economic well-being of individuals, families and national economies.

As you can see, much of this has a direct economic impact, not to mention the painfully obvious health impact on the people and countries that are affected and impacted by this epidemic.

There are a lot of charts that break down by different demographics the various levels of malnutrition around the world, including Latin America/Carribean, Industrialized nations, East Asia, various regions of Africa, the Pacific Rim, Middle East and less developed countries. And from the overall summary, it doesn't look good. Only Latin America and East Asia are on track to meet the original goals of reducing hunger, while the world in general (along with ALL 7 of the other regions summarized have either made "no progress" or "insufficient progress").

The small bit of good news is that it doesn't take a lot to make a lot of progress. And some progress has been made in certain key areas:

  • Vitamin A supplements have saved hundred of thousands of children's lives

  • Some 82 million newborns are protected from iodine deficiency every year, thanks to campaigns to iodize salt

  • Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of infancy is one of the simplest and most effective ways to save a child's life.


New evidence indicates that if high-impact health and nutrition interventions such as breastfeeding, complementary feeding and vitamin A and zinc supplementation are scaled up, they will have a synergistic impact on growth and development, as well as survival.

Even countries with low per capita incomes can make significant progress if appropriate policies are matched by political will.

It doesn't even cost that much to provide these necessary services (since it is not all about food) to people that need it most. If you want to donate, you can go here in order to do so.

If you made it this far, then I thank you for reading this. It is truly heartbreaking. But hopefully, progress can be made to make it a little less sucky.

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