16 August 2016

Africa: Children Lose Up to Ten IQ Points If Undernourished in Their First 1000 Days of Life

Last week on the eve of the Olympics which began on August 5, nutrition advocates, civil society and development partners worked to push government leaders to commit to nutrition targets and also act to end malnutrition by 2030.

These excerpts from a media interview by MC Saatchi and Weber Shandwick covers the importance of nutrition to the individual, community and globally.

What is nutrition?

Good nutrition is less about how much food is available to consume, and more about ensuring the right nutrients get into the bodies of mothers and children. This can be achieved through breastfeeding, a varied diet, or supplements.

How widespread is child undernutrition?

Nearly half of all deaths in children under five are attributable to undernutrition. The problem can be hidden as full bellies hide bodies and brains starved of the nutrients they need.

What are the consequences of poor nutrition?

At its most extreme, nutrition can be a matter of life and death.

Children who are poorly nourished have weaker immune systems so they're more likely to get sick, and often die as a result.

Undernourished children, especially the ones who've been poorly nourished in their first two years, are held back physically and mentally. Children lose up to 10 IQ points if they do not receive the right nutrients and care in their first 1000 days of life. It limits their full potential by making it harder for them to learn and to earn thus jeopardising their prospects for the rest of their lives.

This in turn has an impact on their communities and their countries' economies, costing countries billions of dollars every year in lost productivity and holding back worldwide economic development that could benefit everyone. It's estimated that undernutrition in childhood reduces a person's life time earning potential by 10 per cent.

How much money do countries need to invest in nutrition?

The Global Nutrition Report (GNR) states that the 10-year funding gap to meet 2025 milestones for stunting, severe acute malnutrition, breastfeeding, and anaemia is US$70 billion.

Financing for nutrition comes from governments (domestic), from international sources--the bilateral and multilateral aid agencies and foundations that make up the "donor" community, including corporations - and from people themselves. On a global scale, the World Bank estimates that additional annual nutrition investment of $2.2 billion over 10 years could save 2.2 million lives and reduce the number of stunted children by 50 million.

According to the same report, to finance priority actions, country governments will need to invest an average of $1.4 billion per year and donors an average of $650 million per year respectively on top of current investments. The remaining annual funding needs can be met by innovative financing mechanisms and contributions from households.

All in all, each country's investment will vary according to the types of interventions needed to bring about change but investing in ending malnutrition is one of the most cost-effective steps governments can take.

How can a country address undernutrition?

Undernutrition is 100 per cent preventable and can be reduced by scaling up proven and costed interventions that have already benefitted women and children in many countries and communities around the world. These include promoting early and exclusive breastfeeding, providing supplements for women during pregnancy and babies after birth, and encouraging farmers to produce - and consumers to consume - diverse and nutritious foods.

Leaders and champions need to take responsibility for tackling undernutrition and bringing together everyone with a role to play, including those working in the health sector but also in social welfare, agriculture and education. We know now that nutrition cannot be tackled in isolation because it takes action by all these key players. Finally, a country needs credible, comprehensive and current data in order to track progress made.

What are the current nutrition targets/commitments in place?

In 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals set out the objective of "ending all forms of malnutrition" by 2030, as part of the goal (SDG2) to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. This is an ambitious but not impossible goal if greater political will could be galvanised to reach it.

The 2025 World Health Assembly targets were set by the WHO member states in 2012 focusing on maternal, infant and young child nutrition.

It specified a set of six global nutrition targets aimed to:

achieve a 40 per cent reduction in the number of children under-five who are stunted; achieve a 50 per cent reduction of anaemia in women of reproductive age; achieve a 30 per cent reduction in low birth weight; ensure that there is no increase in childhood overweight cases; increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months up to at least 50 per cent;reduce and maintain childhood wasting to less than five per cent.

Which countries have shown strong leadership and progress?

Peru is an example of a country that set strategic targets and established a robust tracking system that led to meaningful reductions in undernutrition. Peru joined the Scaling up Nutrition program in 2010, when the national prevalence of child stunting was 23.3 per cent. Since then it has been reduced to just 15.5 per cent in the first half of 2015. Other success stories include Kenya, Brazil, Vietnam, and Ghana.

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