Malnutrition is the root cause of the deaths of 2.6 million children each year, and the bodies and brains of 450 million more will fail to develop properly due to inadequate diet over the next 15 years unless immediate action is taken, according to a survey published yesterday by a leading international charity.
The survey of developing countries, A Life Free From Hunger, produced by Save the Children, estimates one in four children are already stunted because of malnutrition. In some developing countries the figure is one in three. In India 48 percent of children are stunted. In high population-growth Nigeria and Tanzania, the problem is escalating rapidly, it said.
Soaring food prices are an aggravating factor. However, these damaging trends can be halted and reversed using tried and tested solutions if the political will exists and public awareness is raised, the authors said.
They urged British Prime Minister David Cameron to use the 2012 Olympics, when dozens of heads of state will be in London, to host a “world hunger summit” and launch a campaign to aid malnutrition victims. Campaigners also want the issue addressed at the G8 summit in Chicago in May.
“This is a hidden hunger crisis that could destroy the lives of nearly [500 million] children unless world leaders act to stop it. Every hour of every day 300 children die from malnutrition-related causes simply because they don’t get to eat the basic, nutritious foods. Yet solutions are clear, cheap and necessary. Not only will tackling hunger save children’s lives but, at a time of economic meltdown, it will help reboot the global economy,” said Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children.
Overall progress had been made in recent years in reducing avoidable child deaths worldwide through immunization and training frontline health workers, Forsyth said. Now a big push was required on a third front, to reduce and ultimately eliminate malnutrition.
The survey says this year is vital. By the middle of next year it will already be too late to provide protection from stunting for the last generation of children who will reach their second birthday — a key nutrition milestone — by the deadline set by the UN’s 2015 Millennium Development Goals.
“Significant progress has been made in saving children’s lives. The number of children not making it to their fifth birthday has fallen from 12 million in 1990 to 7.6 million [last year],” the survey said.
“Momentum is building — [last year] world leaders made critical progress on immunization by pledging to vaccinate 250 million children by 2015, saving four million lives, and 40 countries committed to filling the 3.5 million healthworkers gap,” it said.
“At the same time we must accelerate efforts to improve nutrition, which holds the key to further progress,” it said.
The survey said progress on stunting has been extremely slow. About 80 percent of all stunted children live in 20 of the world’s poorest countries, and this has a significant impact on economic development.
Sharply rising food prices are a big negative factor. In Nigeria 94 percent of families cited prices as their most pressing concern and nearly a third of parents said they had taken children out of school and sent them out to work to help pay for food.
“In the past year nearly [250 million] parents in countries already struggling with malnutrition have cut back on food for their families,” Forsyth said.