WHO receives US$ 6.5 million Gates Foundation grant to develop new growth standards for children in partnership with UN University
04 August 2004 | Geneva - The World Health Organization (WHO) has received a six year, US$ 6.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the development of new growth standards for infants and young children. The project will be conducted in partnership with the United Nations University's Food and Nutrition Program (UNU-FNP). The new standards will provide scientifically more robust tools to assess child growth, and a basis for improved advocacy on behalf of the world's children.
The new standards will allow more accurate estimates of malnutrition, while enabling identification of children in the process of becoming undernourished or overweight, rather than postponing diagnosis of risk until after either state has been reached. They will also be linked to motor development assessments, underscoring the important message that normal physical growth, while an essential element of normal development, is insufficient by itself.
"Growth standards are the most commonly used tools for assessing the general well-being of individuals, groups of infants and children, and the communities in which they live, and for tracking progress in reaching a range of health and social equity goals," says Professor Cutberto Garza from the UNU and Cornell University's Division of Nutritional Sciences, which hosts the UNU-FNP coordination centre.
The grant supports a new approach to the development of growth standards. "The selection of children for the new standards included a prescription of health behaviours - such as breastfeeding norms, standard paediatric care and non-smoking requirements - that are linked to desirable health outcomes. This makes the new standards fundamentally different from the traditional references which merely describe how children grow at a specific time and place," says Dr. Mercedes de Onis, of the WHO's Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, the project's coordinator.
Dr. de Onis says the work was undertaken because of the inadequacies of the present international reference, which fails to depict physiological growth. "Its weaknesses interfere with the appropriate management of children's health and do not support international health goals, e.g. regarding breastfeeding. Moreover, its reliance on a single country's data encourages acceptance of growth discrepancies as inevitable, rather than a consequence of inadequate investment in children."
These conclusions were evident from the project's first phase, which began 14 years ago with an evaluation of the current international growth reference, resulting in a plan for new standards. The second phase, which ended in December 2003, focused on collection of growth and related data. The project follows the growth and development of some 8500 children in Brazil, Ghana, India, Norway, Oman, and the USA.
"We welcome the Gates Foundation's support for this important issue," says Dr Denise Costa Coitinho, WHO's Director of Nutrition for Health and Development. The grant will be used for the project's third and fourth phases, including data analyses, production of the standards, development of related training materials, implementation of training programmes, and worldwide dissemination of the new standards. "This project has been a model example of cooperation and collaboration within the UN family and with its external bilateral partners and civil society," adds the Rector of the United Nations University, Professor Hans van Ginkle.
Ninety-nine countries now use the current international reference. The project's goal is that, by 2010, most of these countries will be using, or have initiated the transition to using, the new standards. The shift to these standards will be exploited to improve links between growth assessments and growth promotion activities, such as the Millennium Development Goals.
"WHO's international normative responsibilities, the UNU's role as the UN's academic arm, and both agencies' worldwide networks make them ideal partners to lead this international effort," says Dr Catherine Le Galès-Camus, WHO Assistant-Director General, Noncommunicable Diseases & Mental Health. "The new standards are important for WHO's work across the entire spectrum of nutritional health problems, from malnutrition to obesity."