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Millions of children at risk as countries fail to tackle malnutrition - report

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 21 Sep 2012 12:40 GMT
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BANGKOK (AlertNet) – Countries with the highest numbers of malnourished children urgently need to step up the way they respond to the problem in order to prevent millions of unnecessary deaths, according to a joint report produced by charities Save the Children and World Vision.

The “Nutrition Barometer”, which provides a snapshot of national governments’ commitments to addressing children’s nutrition, found that of 36 countries, where 90 percent of the world’s malnourished children live, almost a quarter have shown little progress in tackling the crisis.

Without swift action, a commitment made in May 2012 by the World Health Assembly – the decision making body of the World Health Organization – to reduce the number of chronically malnourished children by 40 percent by 2025 would not be achieved, the report warned, urging world leaders gathering in New York for the U.N. General Assembly meeting to tackle the issue.

India, despite experiencing strong economic growth in the past few years, shares the bottom rank – countries defined by the study as having low levels of political, legal and financial commitment and little changes to the high rates of malnutrition – with Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen.

These three countries, together with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Niger, Ethiopia and Madagascar, also have the worst nutrition and child survival outcomes, the report said.

While malnutrition itself may not kill children, it is the underlying cause of the deaths of 2.3 million children under five years in 2011 – more than a third of the total, the report said.

Peru, Guatemala and Malawi were applauded for topping the list, with political will and committed resources to fight child malnutrition achieving results.  

SILENT CRISIS

Despite the overall positive trend of child survival, including nearly halving the number of children dying before their fifth birthday between 1990 and 2011, “progress in reducing childhood under nutrition has been slow,” the report said.

“Rates of stunting are falling too slowly, and the proportion of wasted children (suffering acute weight loss) actually rose during the last decade,” it added.

“Malnutrition remains a critical problem and it’s a very complex problem,” Michel Anglade, Save the Children’s director for campaigns and advocacy in Asia, told AlertNet.

“Therefore to address this we need very strong political commitment. There’s also a need for financial commitment. Unless (they’re there), it’s very difficult to have good outcomes or significantly reduce the level of malnutrition,” he added.

Around 170 million children under five under also suffer from chronic malnutrition or stunting, which hinders cognitive growth and economic potential. Stunted children, shorter than average height, complete fewer years of schooling and earn less income as adults.

“Stunting is called ‘a silent crisis’ because it’s not something very well-known or very visible. You will notice if a child is severely malnourished but you may not notice just by looking at the child that he or she is stunted,” said Anglade.  

“And because it’s less visible, it’s something which has not been addressed properly,” he added.

SOUTHEAST ASIA IMPROVING, BUT LONG WAY TO GO

Four of five Southeast Asian countries included in the report – Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines – are showing signs of progress while Cambodia is lagging behind.

Still, almost all of the countries except Indonesia show weak political and financial commitments. 

While strong outcomes despite weak commitments could be a result of rapid economic growth, there are concerns that aggregated figures may be hiding huge inequalities. 

“The story in Asia is that of growing inequality,” said Anglade.

“Even if the situation overall seemed to have improved, when you start to disaggregate this data you will see that children living in the poorest part of the population or remote provinces are in fact far worse than the national average,” he added.

“What we’re calling for is that the commitment must reach all the children and especially the most vulnerable.”

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