By Madhu Pandit Dasa
Among the major concerns that the world is facing today, child malnutrition is considered to be the most widespread, impacting socio-economic parameters across countries. Currently, 88% of all countries are challenged with two or three forms of malnutrition, including childhood stunting.
As has been well established, there are certain crucial factors that undermine children’s nutritional status—lack of access to nutritious foods, poor feeding practices, no access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and inadequate child and maternal care. As a result of this, children tend to start school late, have reduced cognitive abilities, and slow and limited physical growth. Consequently, they are unable to reach their full potential and this continues throughout their lives, which affects the social and economic progress of a society.
The need to deal with childhood malnutrition across the globe is more urgent than ever. Out of 667 million children under the age of five years worldwide, 159 million are too short for their age, and 50 million do not weigh enough for their height.
In 2017, more than half of all children suffering from wasting were from South Asia, and about one quarter from sub-Saharan Africa. However, the progress made by African nations is also remarkable. Some of these nations— Senegal, Ghana, Rwanda, Angola, Cameroon, Togo, and Ethiopia—have all reduced malnutrition levels significantly over the last 15 years, some by almost 50%.
Even though between 2000 and 2017 the number of stunted children under five worldwide declined from 198 million to 151 million, numbers have increased at an alarming rate in West and Central Africa, from 22.8 million to 28.9 million. A challenge that governments and policymakers of these nations face while addressing malnutrition among children is that while due focus has been given in the past to producing more food and increasing the availability of staple foods like rice and wheat, lesser attention has been paid to diversifying diets and ensuring that low-income households can access the variety of foods that they need, to be healthy. Thus, greater emphasis needs to be given to two aspects: first, supplying more varied foods that are also rich in micronutrients; and second, adequate access to food, especially for the underpreviledged communities.
Apart from lack of proper intake of nutritious food, other factors also affect the nutritional status and health among children. For instance, in densely populated countries, the link between sanitation and undernutrition is very prominent. The lack of sanitation contributes to the spread of infectious diseases. Children are more prone to such diseases and tend to lose their ability to absorb nutrients, thus leading to undernutrition. The ability to absorb nutrients, by children who of suffer repeatedly from infections, is reduced by one-third. The solution to this prevalent concern will require a combination of education and awareness, increased public funding for health and sanitation, and cultural shifts.
Another setback that many nations face in tackling child malnutrition is that some of their nutrition-related schemes are planned for the short-term. This neglects the long-term effects of malnutrition among children and the need for sustained nutritional levels for children. A way forward from this, will require nutrition security policies with defined visions and timelines, to achieve long-term nutrition and health targets.
In addition to aforementioned efforts, public-private partnerships could result in a convergence of efforts, which will not only impact more children in every country, but can also lead to important innovations in dealing with child malnutrition.
At nearly 16%, the prevalence of malnutrition among children in South Asia represents a situation that requires a serious intervention. One such large-scale, nutrition-based intervention for children is the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme in India. The objective of this central government-run programme is to improve nutritional levels among the country’s school-going populace, by providing them with a wholesome meal on every school day. More than 97 million children from nearly 1.11 million schools benefit from the MDM scheme, making it the largest school lunch programme in the world. This scheme is thus a crucial step in addressing the issue of access to food for children on a large scale, across India.
Other nutrition-based schemes such as Food-Friendly Programme and Under School Feeding Programme in Bangladesh, and Integrated Nutrition Package in Sri Lanka are also aimed at ensuring nutrition security for children and preventing undernutrition from the early stages of a child’s life.
Bringing the efforts of all nations together, in 2016, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 2016-2025 as the ‘United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition’ (or Nutrition Decade). The aim of the Nutrition Decade is to accelerate implementation of the commitments made toward eliminating malnutrition and contribute to the realization of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030 . Governments across developed and developing nations are working towards nutrition for all, which will have a ripple effect of improved outcomes across all the SDGs.
The opportunity for change has never been greater. The SDGs, adopted by 193 countries in 2015, opens the door of opportunities for change in the global health and nutrition scenario. SDGs, enshrined the objective of “ending all forms of malnutrition,” encourage the world to take a two-pronged approach toward malnutrition—to integrate all efforts to end every form of malnutrition, and to do this for all by 2030. At least 12 of the 17 SDGs contain indicators that are highly relevant for nutrition. This indicates the fundamental role that nutrition plays in sustainable development. Individual and collective efforts by nations across the world are important, since well-nourished children will grow up to be healthy and productive citizens of a country, and shape the world for a better tomorrow.
Madhu Pandit Dasa is chairman of the Akshaya Patra Foundation.
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