South Asia hotspot for maternal, child undernutrition: UNICEF 2009-11-15 18:54:51   Print

    By Naim-Ul-Karim

    DHAKA, Nov. 15 (Xinhua) -- New data unveiled by the United Nations' children agency has shown that most of the world's chronically undernourished under five -- 83 million children -- are in South Asia.

    According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) report styled, "Improving Child and Maternal Nutrition" received here Sunday, global child undernutrition is concentrated to just 24 countries and the top five which carry the bulk of the burden are South Asian countries.

    The countries with undernutrition rates of more than 40 of their under five population in South Asia are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, the UNICEF report showed.

    The report also reveals that undernutrition diminishes a child's ability to learn and then earn. Nutritional deficiencies and deprivations leave children stunted, slow, tired and listless with lower IQs that hold back their performance well into adulthood, it also showed.

    According to the UNICEF report, chronically undernourished children are more prone to suffer from serious infections and die from common childhood illness such as diarrhea, measles, pneumonia and malaria as well as HIV and AIDS.

    "Undernutrition steals a child's strength and makes illnesses that the body might otherwise fight off far more dangerous," Ann MVeneman, UNICEF Executive Director, was quoted as saying in a press release through which an epitome of the report was dispatched to Xinhua.

    The report presented recent survey-based data on global prevalence of undernutrition (stunting, wasting, underweight) but highlighted stunting in particular of great concern as it is closely linked to child mortality, chronic disease in adult life and a predictor of a child's brain development.

    This leads to reduced learning and reduced income earning capacity in adult life. Children suffering from severe acute undernutrition are nine times more likely to die than children who are not undernourished, the UNICEF report said.

    For these children, it said the most vulnerable of all, therapeutic feeding is critical and experience shows that community-based approaches work best.

    "The paradox of South Asia is that despite healthy levels of economic growth in many countries, chronic undernutrition remains persistently and unacceptably high," said Regional Director for UNICEF South Asia, Daniel Toole.

    The report identified 24 countries in which more than 80 percent of the world's stunted children live. Coverage of interventions such as breastfeeding, salt iodination and vitamin A supplementation is also presented in the report.

    Across South Asia, according to the report, harmful cultural and traditional practices such as child marriage, lead to many women giving birth young. They are told to eat less during pregnancy - for easier delivery - they're anemic and undernourished, and as a result have low birthright babies who may survive but not thrive.

    Less than a third of mothers in these five top countries initiate breastfeeding within the first hour or even the first three days after birth, it said.

    "Although child undernutrition is a major obstacle to development in the region, it is not insurmountable - we do know what works and we have seen other emerging economies in South East Asia and Brazil, pull their youngest citizens out of this chronic and dangerous cycle," Toole said.

    "What is required now is strong leadership at the highest level. Without strategic investments in nutrition, economic growth alone cannot and will not make a lasting difference. This is an urgent health priority -- 83 million children across South Asia are waiting."

    Earlier, in another report the UN's children agency said that 300 million children are trapped in poverty in South Asia-almost half of the children in the region.

Special report: Global News Day for Children 

Editor: Anne Tang
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