Not enough is being done to combat malnutrition

With malnutrition responsible for the deaths of thousands of children, much more high-profile investment is needed.

Malnutrition is the underlying cause for at least a fifth of maternal mortality and more than a third for child deaths [AP]
Malnutrition is the underlying cause for at least a fifth of maternal mortality and more than a third for child deaths [AP]

London, United Kingdom – 
Tanzanian nutrition expert Professor Joyce Kinabo last week gave a speech to health campaigners from around the world, calling on them to focus on nutrition if they want to save the lives of mothers and children.

Despite progress in Tanzania, four out of ten under-fives are stunted from malnutrition and many every day still lose their lives due to causes related to malnutrition. This is a common story in many other countries around the world. Globally, we are making real progress in saving children’s lives, but 7.6 million children are still dying each year from preventable causes and the hidden crisis of malnutrition is an underlying cause of a third of child deaths.

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Joyce Kinabo knows that unless we tackle it now, malnutrition will frustrate progress in saving children’s lives and ensuring children reach their full potential. We know that, for those who survive, malnutrition can undermine the development of a child’s body and brain, with effects that last a lifetime.

A new report by Save the Children published on Tuesday contains some interesting new data and provides an opportunity to take stock and ask ourselves whether, collectively, we are doing enough to tackle the injustices facing mothers and children around the world. The annual ranking compares 165 countries on mother’s health, education and economic status but also critical child indicators such as nutrition. And every year a key issue tends to emerge. This year, all the signs are pointing to the need to tackle malnutrition – the underlying cause of at least a fifth of maternal mortality and more than a third of child deaths.

Although malnutrition is the underlying cause of a third of child deaths, it has not received the same high-profile campaigning and investment as other causes of child mortality, such as HIV/AIDS or malaria. This has meant that while the child mortality rate from malaria has been cut by a third since 2000, child malnutrition rates in Africa have decreased by less than 0.3 per cent.

Yet the costs – both in human and economic terms – are huge. Pervasive long-term malnutrition erodes the foundations of the global economy by destroying the potential of millions of children. The direct cost of malnutrition is estimated at $20 to $30 billion per year and children stunted from malnutrition are predicted to earn an average of 20 per cent less when they become adults. It is estimated that two to three per cent of a country’s national income can be lost to malnutrition.

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Research is clear about what needs to be done. A package of basic measures – including fortifying basic foods with essential minerals or vitamins, encouraging exclusive breastfeeding for children up to six months of age, and better investment in cash transfers with payments targeted at the poorest families – can turn the tide on malnutrition and reduce vulnerability to food price spikes.

But despite such clear evidence, not enough is being done. G8 and G20 leaders made promises to tackle food insecurity in 2009. They have not delivered on these promises. World leaders need to be reminded of promises that have been made when they meet in the US and Mexico over the next month and ensure that nutrition is addressed as part of their food and agriculture strategy, if the lives of children and mothers are to be saved. The G8 and the G20 leaders can lead global action to tackle malnutrition, and save lives. It would also send a clear message around the world that tackling food security and food prices can benefit all and not just those in the richest countries facing tough economic situations at this time.

In Tanzania, the government has established a High Level Nutrition Steering Committee to coordinate nutrition efforts across the country but still, a lot of work on the ground needs to be done in order to really address causes of malnutrition and change children’s lives, and everybody has a role to play. Joyce Kinabo and 35 young people from Dar es Salaam presented a petition to the media calling for “Lishe Bora” or “Good Nutrition”. At this event members of the parliament invited Joyce and the children to present their recommendations. The challenge is urgent but their message is simple: “Lishe Bora. Lishe Bora“.

Ben Hewitt is the Global Operations Director for Save the Children and a leading communications, media and public relations specialist.

Follow him on Twitter: @ibenhewitt

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