Fact Sheet No. 119
(Reviewed) November 1996
Malnutrition kills, maims and disables.
Malnutrition in its many forms persists in virtually all countries of the world in spite of a general improvement in food supplies and health conditions, and the increased availability of educational and social services.
An estimated 174 million under-five children in the developing world are malnourished as indicated by low weight for age, and 230 million are stunted. Malnutrition results in poor physical and cognitive development as well as lower resistance to illness. It is now recognized that 6.6 million out of 12.2 million deaths among children under-five - or 54% of young child mortality in developing countries - is associated with malnutrition. In addition to the human suffering, the loss in human potential translates into social and economic costs that no country can afford.
Over 800 million people still cannot meet basic needs for energy and protein, more than two thousand million people lack essential micronutrients, and hundreds of millions suffer from diseases caused by unsafe food or by unbalanced food intake.
In 1990, only 53 developing countries had reliable national data on the prevalence of underweight in young children; by 1995, 97 countries had such data, and 95 countries also had data on stunting and wasting.
It is estimated that more than half of the young children in south Asia suffer from protein- energy malnutrition, which is about five times the prevalence in the Western hemisphere, at least three times the prevalence in the Middle East and more than twice that of east Asia. Estimates for sub-Saharan Africa indicate that the prevalence is approximately 30%.
In some regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, stagnation of nutritional improvement combined with a rapid rise in population has resulted in an actual increase in the total number of malnourished children. Currently, over two-thirds of the world's malnourished children live in Asia (especially south Asia), followed by Africa and Latin America.
At the end of January 1996, 98 countries had national plans of action for nutrition and 41 countries had one under preparation, in keeping with their commitment made at the International Conference on Nutrition in Rome in December 1992.
While specific activities may vary, most programmes that address childhood malnutrition include some conventional activities such as the protection and promotion of breast-feeding, appropriate complementary feeding, nutrition education for behavioural change, growth monitoring, micronutrient deficiency control, nutritional support of the sick child, maternal nutrition and health referral. What often distinquishes successful programmes, is that communities are involved in identifying the problems and mobilizing action and resources for solving them; a good technical package is not sufficient.
More must be done to ensure good nutritional status of young women before they become mothers and to improve nutrition during pregnancy and lactation. Programmes will require innovative approaches to reach adolescent girls, particularly in countries where their secondary school enrolment is low.
A focus on complementary feeding, combined with continued attention to protection, promotion and support of breast-feeding, will address an important cause of malnutrition. Programmes must put special emphasis on the crucial period from birth to 18 months.
Overall malnutrition must no longer be considered without reference to micronutrient status as the two are inextricably linked. Attempting to improve protein-energy status without addressing micronutrient defeciencies will not result in optimal growth and function.
Many of the countries that have failed to achieve improvements in child malnutrition have been impeded because of emergency situations. More needs to be done to prevent nutritional emergencies and to design safety nets for the most vulnerable groups in case of emergency.
For further information, please contact Health Communications and Public Relations, WHO, Geneva. Telephone (41 22) 791 2543, Fax (41 22) 791 4858.
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