Director-General

Dr Margaret Chan's interventions at sessions of the UN high-level meeting on noncommunicable diseases

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

New York, United States of America
20 September 2011

High-level meeting on nutrition

Address at the High-level meeting on nutrition, session on "Why we must act now: consequences of early under-nutrition", on the occasion of the UN High-level meeting on noncommunicable diseases

Excellencies, honourable ministers, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

The critical importance of nutrition has been badly neglected in recent decades. Some shocking statistics have barely budged.

Around 40% of pregnant women in Africa and Asia suffer from anaemia. Each year, some 13 million babies are born with the dangerously low weight of less than 2.5 kilograms.

Rates of breastfeeding have stagnated. Worldwide, only 35% of babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life.

More than 170 million children do not grow to their full genetic potential.

Policies and practices have not kept pace with significant new research findings. Opportunities have been missed, and many of these opportunities have life-long consequences.

I welcome this high-level attention to nutrition as a chance to catch up, to align what is known from the evidence with how we act.

We have long-standing problems linked to undernutrition and nutrient deficiencies early in life, including high mortality and impaired growth and mental functions.

And we have some newer things to worry about, to give added impetus to the need to act.

An increasing number of women are overweight or obese when they become pregnant, which places them at increased risk of developing gestational diabetes and delivering very large babies, also at increased risk of diabetes.

At the other extreme, we have the damage done by undernutrition during the first one thousand days of life, from gestation through early childhood. As we now know, this damage, which is usually irreversible, increases the risk of noncommunicable diseases later in life.

In fact, undernutrition in early life doubles the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It also increases the risk of developing hypertension, stroke, chronic obstructive lung disease, and osteoporosis.

In people malnourished in early life, diabetes develops following a much smaller weight gain than seen in their better-nourished counterparts. This helps explain why the prevalence of diabetes is skyrocketing in countries undergoing rapid modernization and rapid changes in dietary patterns.

Investing in good nutrition in the first thousand days of life pays handsome dividends that last a lifetime.

Many health-promoting measures are remarkably simple and affordable.

Exclusively breastfed babies grow up with lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels, and are far less likely to become obese or overweight. Breastfed babies do better in school and perform better on intelligence tests.

This is a compelling incentive for countries to enforce the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and to ensure that more maternity wards comply with WHO baby-friendly standards.

Complementary infant foods need to deliver an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals, but do not need any salt or added sugars.

We know, too, that supplementation with just a few nutrients, namely iron, folic acid, and iodine, reduces malnutrition in early life.

We know what to do.

We can reduce maternal anaemia, low birth weight, and stunting, and cut the risk of NCDs within a generation. We can achieve this by giving nutrition the attention it deserves.

Thank you.

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