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Little Victims of Big Misfortune

Mapping childhood malnutrition

© ranplett / istockphoto / getty images

The scope of childhood malnutrition has decreased since 2000, although millions of children under five years of age are still undernourished and, as a result, have stunted growth. An international team of researchers analysed the scope of global childhood malnutrition in 2000 and 2017, and estimated the probability of achieving the World Health Organization Global Nutrition Targets by 2025.

According to a UN report, in 2018, one out of nine people in the world experienced hunger. The total number of hungry people exceeded 821 million globally, of which almost 514 million lived in Asia, over 256 million in Africa, and 42 million in Latin America and the Caribbean.

World Health Organization data as of 2018 show that almost half (45%) of mortality among children under the age of 5 is due to malnutrition. 3.1 million children die of hunger annually. Malnutrition leads to child growth failure (CGF), which is expressed as stunting, wasting, and underweight.

In addition to risks of literally dying of starvation, CGF causes cognitive and physical developmental impairments that can lead to later cardiovascular disease, reduced intellectual ability and school attainment, as well as reduced economic productivity in adulthood.

‘Childhood malnutrition is an essential reason for children’s vulnerability to infections and, accordingly, their high mortality,’ said Vasily Vlassov, Professor in the HSE Department of Health Care Administration and Economics and one of the study’s authors. ‘This is not a temporary suffering in childhood, but a tragedy for the whole future life. Malnutrition decreases an individual’s ability to learn.’

CGF is spread unevenly, with 99% of hungry children living in 105 low- and middle-income countries, most of which are located in Africa and Asia.

Russia, as well as many other countries with average-high income, was not included in the study, since, according to Prof. Vlassov, serious childhood hunger is rather a rare phenomenon and is not a threat to public health.

Severe malnutrition leads to stunting. Even though estimated childhood stunting prevalence decreased from 36% to 26% over 17 years in the countries analysed in the report, in 2017, more than 176 million kids were shorter than medical standards presume for their age. Half of them lived in India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and China.

In the 21st century, countries of Central America and the Caribbean, North Africa, and East Asia achieved the most progress in fighting childhood stunting. In these regions, estimated stunting prevalence of at least 50% in 2000 had reduced to 30% or less by 2017. In sub-Saharan regions, Central and South Asia, as well as Oceania, up to 40% of children under five were affected by stunting in 2017.

Wasting, or low body weight indices, were diagnosed in 58.3 million children in the 105 countries in 2017. This is 2% less than in 2000. On average, about 6.5% of children in these countries suffered from wasting. Most of them live in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. The highest shares of children with wasting (up to 20%) are in Africa, in areas of countries stretching from Mauritania to Sudan, as well as in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.

According to data for 2017, 13% of children are underweight for their age. In 2000, their share reached almost 20%. Researchers observed the most significant improvements in this indicator in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and Southeast Asia Central Asia and Central Africa remain troubled regions.

The World Health Organization aims to reduce childhood stunting by 40% by 2025. According to the researchers, this is quite achievable in Central America and the Caribbean, South America, North Africa, and East Asia, despite regions in some of these countries continuing to have high shares of children who suffer stunting and wasting.

Meanwhile, in many countries analysed in the study, the probability of achieving the WHO targets is low, especially as it relates to stunting and wasting. This primarily concerns sub-Saharan regions, South Asia, and Oceania.

The global community joins forces to fight malnutrition within the framework of international organizations. The World Food Programme (UN WFP), which distributes 12.6 billion meals in 80 countries every year, is considered one of the leaders. In addition to direct food aid, WFP carries out projects aimed at development and restoring living conditions in areas suffering from conflict and natural disasters.

The UN goals for 2030 include achieving a zero level of hunger. To do so, money is being invested in agricultural development and production. In particular, small farms capable of providing food for local markets are being created.

In addition, the UN is implementing technologies that allow crop yields to be increased by means of conserving soil and water resources, protecting plants from pests, and using new breeds of plants that are resistant to disease and are enriched with essential vitamins and minerals.

IQ

Study author:
Vasily Vlassov, Professor at the Department of Health Care Administration and Economics, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences
Author: Alena Tarasova, March 01