LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nearly half of all deaths among children under five - 3.1 million deaths a year - are caused by malnutrition, according to a new series of reports released on Thursday.
The 2013 Lancet series on maternal and child nutrition also estimated that stunting, a form of malnutrition which causes a child to be too small for his or her age, affected at least 165 million children worldwide in 2011, with Africa and Asia showing the highest prevalence.
"Countries will not be able to break out of poverty or sustain economic advances when so much of their population is unable to achieve the nutritional security that is needed for a healthy and productive life," said Professor Robert Black, of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the leading author of the Lancet reports.
“Understanding that 45 percent of all child mortality (under) five is underlined by undernutrition is major,” Sandra Matuma, senior nutrition adviser at charity Action Against Hunger told Thomson Reuters Foundation at the launch of the study in London.
“We need to know that to push governments, to invest in treatments, prevention, strategies... (This series) provides evidence-based information for advocacy.”
Following a 2008 study that put the issue of nutrition on the global development agenda, this year’s Lancet research re-evaluated problems of maternal and child malnutrition - such as poor breastfeeding practices and vitamin and mineral deficiencies - and provided a framework to achieve optimal fetal and child growth.
The series of reports highlights, for example, how child undernutrition has permanent and impairing physical consequences, affecting children’s growth and development and possibly resulting in poor school performance and increased vulnerability to diseases.
It produced new findings which show that children born too small for their gestational age – over a quarter of births in low- and middle-income countries – face an increased risk of dying. Restricted growth in the womb, due to maternal undernutrition, is estimated to be responsible for more than a quarter of all newborn deaths.
In its 2008 study, the Lancet estimated that malnutrition was the cause of 35 percent of all deaths in children under five, a sharp decrease from previous estimates of 50 percent. “We now believe we had underestimated and also some of the risk factors have changed in the background, so our current estimation is a lot closer to that 50 percent,” Professor Zulfiqar Bhutta, of Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
MORE FUNDING NEEDED
The British and Brazilian governments and the Children's Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) are co-hosting a summit in London on Saturday at which donor countries are expected to pledge more funding for nutrition which, at present, is left with the crumbs of official development assistance (ODA).
Aid campaigners gathering in London’s Hyde Park on Saturday will call for action and more funds for hunger and malnutrition, ahead of a G8 meeting on June 17. The Enough Food for Everyone IF, a campaign backed by more than 200 NGOs, is calling for $1 billion in annual funds to tackle malnutrition.
Even this amount falls far short of the $9.6 billion the Lancet said is needed to reduce by 1 million the number of deaths from malnutrition among children under five.
“(Nutrition) is still on the global agenda in terms of what’s being said, but if you follow the money in terms of what’s being done, I think there’s a long way to go,” Matuma said. "Since 2011, we've been spending about $143 million," she added.
A recent report by Action Against Hunger said that funding for effective nutrition programmes represents just 1.2 percent of the estimated $11.8 billion that is needed annually to tackle child hunger.
Addressing maternal malnutrition is paramount, not only to lower child mortality but also to save the lives of the mothers. Undernourished women are more likely to die in pregnancy, to give birth prematurely, and to have babies who are born premature or too small for their gestational age, the report said.
Reproductive rights and nutrition go hand in hand, experts said.
“Empowering women, educating girls, also providing them with the economic opportunity to look after themselves, in terms of impact … on their own health is huge compared to what we can do by delivering pills,” said Bhutta.
“These are investments that need to be made,” he added, knowing that comprehensive policies that include nutrition, reproductive rights and sexual education among others are “not something you can achieve in a two-three year political time frame.”