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Hidden Malnutrition Crisis Could Put Almost Half a Billion Children at Risk

15 February 2012 - New global research by Save the Children has revealed that, after a year of soaring food prices, nearly half of surveyed families say they have been forced to cut back on food. Nearly a third of parents surveyed said their children complained that they didn't have enough food to eat.

The poll, conducted in India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru and Bangladesh—the five countries where more than half of the world's malnourished children live—also revealed one in six surveyed had asked their children to skip school to work to help pay for the families’ food.

The survey contains a snap-shot of the hardship that families are facing in countries already struggling with high rates of malnutrition. In its new report “A Life Free from Hunger: Tackling Child Malnutrition,” the charity says that rising food prices and malnutrition are putting future global progress on child mortality at risk.

Even before the food price spikes, many of the poorest children were already surviving on a sparse, low-cost diet dominated by a basic staple such as white rice, maize or cassava, which has very low nutritional value.

Save the Children warns that if no concerted action is taken, half a billion children will be physically and mentally stunted over the next 15 years, their lives blighted by malnutrition.

The chief executive of Save the Children, Jasmine Whitbread, said, “Imagine you were a parent who couldn't give your children the kinds of food that will help them grow and thrive. In recent years the world has made dramatic progress in reducing child deaths, down from 12 to 7.6 million, but this momentum will stall if we fail to tackle malnutrition.

“Malnutrition can damage children permanently, impairing their brains and bodies. But with focused action, we can put in place solutions which will end this scandal.”

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 like 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%.

Yet the costs—both in human and economic terms—are huge. A child who is chronically malnourished, can have an IQ of up to 15 points less than a child properly nourished, whilst Save the Children estimates the cost to the global economy of child malnutrition in 2010 alone was nearly $121 billion.

Save the Children says a package of basic measures—including fortifying basic foods with essential minerals or vitamins, encouraging exclusive breastfeeding for children up to 6 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.

Save the Children is calling on all world leaders to take a few simple measures to tackle malnutrition:

  • to make the crisis visible by setting global and national targets to reduce stunting
  • to increase funding for direct nutrition interventions, such as breastfeeding and fortification, that could save millions of lives.
  • to invest in effective social protection policies that reach vulnerable families and support small-scale farmers by ensuring that their agricultural policies aim to improve nutrition.
  • to use G8/G20 meetings to galvanise political leadership on hunger and build plan of concrete action to tackle malnutrition

Jasmine Whitbread said, “Every hour of every day, 300 children die because of malnutrition, often simply because they don’t have access to the basic, nutritious foods that we take for granted in rich countries. By acting on hunger and malnutrition, world leaders have the chance to change this for millions of children across the world.”

 


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Notes to editors:

Save the Children’s survey results showed that: in India, one of the world’s biggest boom economies and where half of all children are stunted, more than a quarter of parents surveyed said their children went without food sometimes or often; in Nigeria, nearly a third of parents had pulled their children out of school so they could work to help pay for food; in Bangladesh, 87% of those surveyed said the price of food had been their most pressing concern in 2010.

The survey was carried out by Globescan, international research consultancy, in December 2011 and January 2012 in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Peru and Nigeria. These countries are the home of half of the world’s 170m million stunted children. Proportion of stunted children in countries surveyed: Pakistan 42% (10.1M) of children stunted,

Bangladesh 43% (7M), India 48% (60.5M), Nigeria 43% (10.9M), Peru 24% (712,560)[7] .

A randomly-selected sample of over 1000 adults over 18 years was interviewed in each country spanning both urban and rural areas. The data were weighted by age and gender to match the national population profile. The results are nationally representative. In all but Bangladesh, the interviews were carried out face to face. In Bangladesh, where the penetration rate of mobile phone among adults is between 80 and 90%, the interviews were carried out through random direct dialing.


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