New reports focus on global child health, call for improvements in child nutrition


Indian homeless eat food at a feeding program for the poor in Hyderabad on March 17, 2013. India still has the world's largest number of impoverished in a single country, of its nearly one billion inhabitants, an estimated 350-400 million live below the poverty line with 75 percent of them in the rural areas.


Noah Seelam

Two reports released this week examine the health and development of children around the world and outline next steps for the global community.

The international coalition Countdown to 2015 released a report tracking progress toward the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) related to child and maternal health, and the nonprofit Save the Children published a separate report addressing child malnutrition. Both reports were published Monday and pressed for continued efforts to improve the health and livelihood of children.

Countdown to 2015 tracks progress toward MDGs 4 and 5 in the 75 countries in which 95 percent of the world’s maternal and child deaths occur. The goal of MDG 4 is to reduce the child mortality rate by two-thirds of 1990 levels, and that of MDG 5 is to reduce the maternal mortality rate by three-quarters. The deadline for all MDGs is December 31, 2015.

Between 1990 and 2011, the number of children who died before age five fell from 12 million to 6.9 million. The Countdown report, titled Accountability for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Survival, found that since 1990, eight “Countdown” countries have reduced child mortality rates by two-thirds or more and 22 others have reduced child mortality rates by at least half. But still, 24 countries — all but one in sub-Saharan Africa — are “lagging behind,” the report said.

Progress toward MDG 4 has accelerated in recent years. Countdown’s report found that more than 50 countries reduced child mortality at a faster rate between 2000 and 2011 than during the previous decade – a trend that Countdown noted was true for maternal mortality, too.

The report also found that 30 countries have reduced maternal mortality by 50 percent or more since 1990. But nine countries saw an increased rate during the same period.

“Momentum is gathering,” said Elizabeth Mason, director for maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health at the World Health Organization, in a press release. With less than 1,000 days until the 2015 MDG deadline, we need to maximize the power of time-tested basics like breastfeeding, soap and clean water alongside new medicines and technologies to keep even more mothers and children alive and healthy.”

Accountability for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Survival emphasized the need for prioritizing progress in sub-Saharan Africa and also identified several key areas to address in order to make progress toward the MDGs, including child nutrition.

Poor nutrition makes children more susceptible to infectious diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia, and levels of child stunting, due to chronic malnutrition, “remain unacceptably high,” according to the report. Under-nutrition causes nearly half of all child deaths, Countdown said. 

Save the Children’s report, titled Food for Thought, found that malnutrition significantly impacts children’s ability to learn in school, and in turn affects their potential to “break the cycle of poverty.”

Progress in addressing the problem of childhood malnutrition, the report said, “has been pitifully slow.” And poor nutrition “threatens to undermine” more than two decades of achievements in both education and child health, the report said. Malnutrition causes 2.3 million child deaths each year and impedes the development of millions more.

Food for Thought drew from a long-term study of 3,000 children in Ethiopia, India, Peru, and Vietnam and found that children who suffer from malnutrition also fare worse than other children on math tests, reading and writing comprehension, and grade year placement.

Citing data from the UN, the Save the Children report said that among children under five, malnutrition caused stunting in 47 percent in southern Asia and 39 percent in sub-Saharan Africa – and was especially prevalent in Nigeria and India.

Among the actions recommended in the report was for donors and countries to develop and fund national nutrition plans. Last year, the World Health Assembly approved a global plan to reduce child malnutrition by 2025, including a 40 percent reduction in the number of children under five who are stunted.

The Countdown to 2015 report was released at the Women Deliver conference held this week in Kuala Lumpur and focused on women and girls.

Food for Thought comes in advance of a conference on addressing malnutrition co-hosted by the UK government, the London-based nonprofit Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, and the Brazilian government.

Both reports raised the importance of nutrition during a child’s first 1,000 days of life.

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