One in four children in developing countries underweight

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More than a quarter of children in developing countries are underweight, a new report claimed today.

The study, by children's' rights campaign group Unicef, reveals that the average number of underweight youngsters has dropped just five percentage points in the last 15 years.

Unicef believes the figures prove the world is failing children.

The report, Progress for Children: A Report Card on Nutrition, shows 27% of children in developing countries - around 146 million - are underweight, many to a life-threatening degree.

More than half these children live in just three countries - Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

Unicef executive director Ann Veneman said: "The lack of progress to combat malnutrition is damaging children and nations.

"Few things have more impact than nutrition on a child's ability to survive, learn effectively and escape a life of poverty.

"For every visibly undernourished child, there are several more battling a hidden nutritional crisis.

"Many are seriously deficient in essential vitamins and minerals such as iodine, vitamin A and iron."

Poor nutrition remains a global epidemic contributing to more than half of all child deaths, about 5.6 million per year.

Unicef says its report charts progress towards the first UN Millennium Development Goal - to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.

Achieving this goal means halving the proportion of children who are underweight for their age, the most visible sign of malnutrition.

The study shows only two world regions are on track to meet the MDG target - Latin America and the Caribbean, together with the East Asia and Pacific region.

Unicef believes the rest of the world is still far off track.

The campaign group says the roots of malnutrition lie in poverty, lack of education and inequality, as well as unsafe feeding practices and repeated bouts of illness such as diarrhoea and malaria.

A Unicef spokeswoman said poor nutrition contributed to the deaths of 5.6 million children each year - the equivalent of 10 children a minute.