Special report: The hungry generation

One young child in four around the world is too malnourished to grow properly, a major new investigation reveals

Paul Vallely@pvall
Wednesday 15 February 2012 01:00

A quarter of young children around the world are not getting enough nutrients to grow properly, and 300 die of malnutrition every hour, according to a new report that lays bare the effects of the global food crisis.

There are 170 million children aged under five whose development has been stunted by malnutrition because of lack of food for them and their breastfeeding mothers, and the situation is getting significantly worse, according to research by the charity Save the Children.

In Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Peru and Nigeria – countries which are the home of half of the world's stunted children – recent rises in global food prices are forcing the parents of malnourished children to cut back on food and pull children out of school to work.

According to the report, A Life Free from Hunger: Tackling Child Malnutrition, a third of parents surveyed said their children routinely complain they do not have enough to eat. One in six parents can never afford to buy meat, milk or vegetables. It suggests that six out of 10 children in Afghanistan are not getting enough nutrients to avoid stunted growth.

"If no concerted action is taken," warns Justin Forsyth, the charity's chief executive, "half a billion children will be physically and mentally stunted over the next 15 years".

Over the past five years the price of food has soared across the globe, thanks to extreme weather conditions, diverting farmland to grow biofuels, speculative trading of food commodities and the global financial crisis. The poor, who spend the bulk of their income on food, are hit hardest.

One in four parents in the countries surveyed have been forced to cut back on food for their families. One in six have had children skip school to help their parents at work.

In India, half of all children are stunted from malnutrition with a quarter often going without food entirely. In Afghanistan, the price of food has risen 25 per cent – the average rise worldwide in 2011. In places like Kenya it is up 40 per cent.

Save the Children describes malnutrition as a silent killer because it is often not recorded as a cause of death on birth certificates, leading to a lack of action across the developing world.

With early intervention, the life-long physical and mental stunting from hunger can be eased, enabling individuals to reach their potential.

In northern Afghanistan, Mohammed Jan was only half the weight he should have been at seven months because his mother was so poor that she did not have enough food to produce breast milk. He was slipping into death, but he was spotted by a voluntary community health worker and sent to Khulm District Hospital near Mazar-e-Sharif.

The majority of children experiencing malnutrition in countries such as India, Nigeria and Bangladesh are not as lucky, according to the report.

Malnutrition is the underlying cause of a third of all child deaths, the report says, but it never receives the high-profile campaigning and investment accorded to other causes of child mortality such as malaria, measles or Aids. Aid focused on those has produced results. Child deaths from malaria have been slashed by a third since 2000, yet child malnutrition in Africa has fallen by less than 0.3 per cent each year over the same time frame.

Save the Children said that, without greater focus on the condition, individuals such as Mohammed Jan were facing a blighted future. "More than 30,000 children already die every year in Afghanistan because of malnutrition, and a severe drought in the north has left thousands more dangerously hungry," said Mr Forsyth, who has just returned from the country.

Most malnourished children, around 85 per cent, do not die but are diminished, physically and mentally. The World Bank estimates that stunting reduces the GDP of developing countries by between 2 and 3 per cent. Children with stunted growth can have an IQ 15 points lower than a well-fed child's.

"Obviously that has a knock-on impact on their education and the development potential of the nation," said Mr Forsyth. The last decade has seen massive improvements in the health of children in the developing world. Unnecessary child deaths have fallen from 12 million a year to 7.6 million. The world food crisis is now threatening to stall that progress.

Save the Children is pressing David Cameron to call a world hunger summit when world leaders will be in London at the Olympics. "We want the biggest push ever on world hunger," said Mr Forsyth. Save the Children estimates that, for $10bn focused on a package of basic interventions, two million lives a year would be saved and 60 million more saved from stunting.

Hunger in numbers

450m Children will be affected by stunting in the next 15 years, if current trends continue.

1 in 3 Malnutrition is an underlying cause of the deaths of 2.6 million children.

300 Children die every hour of every day because of malnutrition.

To support Save the Children's No Child Born To Die campaign visit savethechildren.org.uk/nameaday

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