Hidden Malnutrition Crisis Could Put Almost Half a Billion Children at Risk, Save the Children Says

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Chronic Malnutrition is Preventable, but Remains Deadlier and More Widespread than Food Scarcity, New Report Says

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Celebrity chef Cat Cora visits Save the Children's nutrition programs in Ethiopia. Credit: Anne-Sofie Helms/Save the Children
Celebrity chef Cat Cora visits Save the Children's nutrition programs in Ethiopia. Credit: Anne-Sofie Helms/Save the Children

WESTPORT, Conn. (February 15, 2011) — Despite global efforts to address food security, chronic childhood malnutrition has been largely overlooked, putting almost half a billion children at risk of permanent damage in the next 15 years, Save the Children said in a new report released today.

"Malnutrition is a largely hidden crisis, but it afflicts one in four children around the world," said Carolyn Miles, President & CEO of Save the Children. "It wreaks lifelong damage and is a major killer of children. Every hour of every day, 300 children die because of malnutrition."

Save the Children's new report, titled "A Life Free from Hunger: Tackling Child Malnutrition," was released as the world begins to awaken to the latest emergency food crisis, in the African Sahel. But the report reveals that chronic malnutrition, or a lack of proper nutrition over time, is deadlier and far more widespread than the short-term acute malnutrition frequently seen during food crises.

Chronic malnutrition weakens young children's immune systems, leaving them more likely to die of childhood diseases like diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria. It leads to 2 million child deaths a year, three times as many as result from acute malnutrition.

But, chronic malnutrition also leaves children far more vulnerable to extreme suffering and death from acute malnutrition when emergency food crises hit, as in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel right now. In total, malnutrition underlies 2.6 million child deaths every year, or one third of all child deaths.

"It's time for a paradigm shift. The world can no longer afford to wait until visibly emaciated children grab headlines to inspire the action these children need and deserve. Unfortunately for millions of the world's chronically malnourished children, permanent damage to their physical and intellectual development is not as obvious, and so it's too often overlooked," said Miles.

Save the Children's new report calls for action on proven solutions that would prevent these deaths and help all children affected by hunger and malnutrition. Progress on reducing malnutrition has been extremely slow for 20 years, in comparison to great strides made on other global health crises.

Costs are High

Well-nourished children perform better in school and grow up to earn considerably more on average than those who were malnourished as children. Recent evidence suggests nutritional interventions can increase adult earnings by 46 percent. Malnutrition costs many developing nations an estimated 2-3 percent of their GDP, extends the cycle of poverty, and impedes global economic growth at a critical time.

"World leaders are searching for ways to strengthen their economies over the long term, so why not achieve that through helping children get the healthy start they deserve?" Miles said.

As Save the Children released its new report, United Nations leaders endorsed its call to action to end chronic malnutrition, also known as stunting.

UNICEF's Executive Director Anthony Lake said: "Stunting is rarely obvious until it is too late. The first 1,000 days of life determines a child's life forever — before birth until the 2nd birthday. After that it is simply too late to repair the damage to the bodies and brains of a child. We are encouraged though there is now an awakening around stunting thanks to the leadership of many governments and the Scaling Up Nutrition movement."

Action Lagging Awareness

While addressing food security, world leaders have galvanized much-needed support to boost agricultural productivity, but they have yet to make nutrition central to their efforts. In 2009, President Obama helped spearhead the L'Aquila Food Security Initiative, which inspired $22 billion in pledges at the G8 and G20 meetings. Yet, only 3 percent of these pledges and less than 1 percent of pledges fulfilled to date have targeted nutrition.

"Investment in agriculture is clearly important to making sure production keeps up with a growing population," said Miles. "But let's not forget, right now the world produces enough food to feed everybody, and yet one third of children in developing countries are malnourished. Clearly, just growing more food is not the answer."

"The United States has shown great leadership on nutrition, but now must call on other powerful nations to make it a global priority," she added.

Many expect President Obama will again address food security when he hosts this spring's G8 meeting in Chicago. Save the Children is calling on the G8 to extend food security funding at current levels for three years while including greater focus on nutrition.

A Solvable Crisis

According to seminal research published in the Lancet medical journal in 2008, a set of 13 basic interventions could prevent the vast majority of malnutrition, especially in the critical 1,000-day window between conception and age 2. These include encouraging breastfeeding to avoid contaminated water, proper introduction of varied foods for infants, fortification of basic staples and vitamin supplementation.

The World Bank has estimated the cost of getting these solutions to 90 percent of the children who need them would annually save 2 million lives and cost $10 billion. Split among developing and developed countries, that sum is manageable, Save the Children says.

If the world fails to act and the current rate of progress of reducing chronic malnutrition continues at less than 1 percent a year, 450 million children will be affected in the next 15 years, Save the Children says.

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