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The scourge of child malnutrition

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


WORLDWIDE, hunger afflicts nearly a billion people, many of whom are children. Over extended periods, hunger causes malnutrition, which in turn makes the victims vulnerable to diseases which can result in death.

Acute malnutrition threatens the lives of 19 million children, and every year at least 3.5 million of them die from malnutrition-related illnesses. One in four of the world's children are stunted by the ravages of malnutrition, while the bodies and brains of one in three children in developing countries are damaged by malnutrition.

Iodine deficiency, a form of malnutrition caused by a lack of specific nutrients, affects one-third of schoolchildren in developing countries and is associated with a loss of 10 to 15 IQ points.

Research has shown that the effects of malnutrition in childhood are permanent and adversely affect adult life, in that adults who were malnourished as children earn at least 20 per cent less on average than those who were not.

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Experts tell us that this will translate into a $125-billion loss to the global economy by the time these children reach adulthood. They also estimate that because of diminished mental and physical capacity, in some countries, as much as three per cent of the national income can be lost to malnutrition.

The dilemma facing the world is that, over the last 20 years, efforts to reduce or eliminate malnutrition have not been effective due to long-term factors such as poverty, tribalism, droughts, civil wars, climate change, and volatile food prices.

It is, however, possible to end malnutrition in children because the world has enough food to feed everyone. But food surpluses exist side by side with hunger and malnutrition which, we hold, is a failure of policy at the national and international levels.

Food aid is one solution, but it is a temporary fix. The long-term solutions, we suggest, must focus on more and better food production, particularly in developing countries, improved hygiene, better eating habits, less sugar, and more protein and breast feeding for infants.

The World Bank estimates that it would cost just over US$1 per person per year for four billion people to benefit from access to fortified wheat, iron, complementary food and micronutrient powders.

Simple solutions such as Vitamin A, zinc supplements, and iodised salt, which are provided for children at risk of malnutrition, are already well known. They could prevent the deaths of almost two million children under five years old if delivered in the 36 developing countries where 90 per cent of the world's malnourished children live.

A recent study reveals that, compared with their non-malnourished peers, malnourished children scored seven per cent lower on math tests; were 19 per cent less likely to be able to read a simple sentence by the time they were eight; were 12 per cent less likely to be able to write a simple sentence; and 13 per cent less likely to be in the appropriate grade for their age at school.

In Jamaica in 2010, 3.5 per cent of children were moderately or severely underweight. This is a rough indicator of malnutrition. What the country needs to know is how these children's mental and physical abilities have been affected.

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