Posted by: Martin Fox | June 21, 2008

Undernutrition kills 3.5 million children under 5 each year

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Undernutrition is to blame for 3.5 million deaths among children aged under five each year, but most of the fatalities occur in 20 countries, where targeted aid programmes could swiftly address the problem, researchers say.

Most of the deaths are inflicted indirectly by stunting and poor resistance to disease, and two of the biggest culprits are lack of vitamin A and zinc during the mother’s pregnancy and the child’s first two years of life, they say.

Mortality from undernutrition accounts for more than a third of child deaths worldwide, they add.

The five studies are published online Thursday by the British health journal The Lancet.

The one-off series also puts the spotlight on 20 countries where 80 percent of the world’s undernourished children live.

Most of these countries are in tropical Africa and South Asia, as well Myanmar, North Korea and Indonesia.

By focussing efforts on these countries, governments could meet three UN Millennium Goals on children health and maternal mortality, the authors say.

One of the papers looks at data from major studies carried out in Brazil, Guatemala, India, the Philippines and South Africa.

It finds a direct link between maternal and early childhood undernutrition and adult health.

Undernutrition is the term for deficiencies in key proteins, vitamins and minerals, usually caused by a lack of food.

In contrast, malnutrition is an imbalance in diet that causes deficiencies. Malnutrition thus includes overeating or consumption of foods that are too fatty or sugary.

The worse the nutrition, the likelier the child would be shorter in adult height, do poorly at school, end up among the low paid and have offspring with low birthweight, it says.

“Damage suffered in early life leads to permanent impairment, and might also affected future generations,” says this paper, led by Cesar Victoria of Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil.

“Its prevention will probably bring about important health, education and economic benefits. Chronic diseases are especially common in undernourished children who experience rapid weight gain after infancy.”

But the study also pays tribute to China, saying it had achieved “a dramatic reduction” in hunger and undernourishment thanks to economic reforms, initiated in 1978, that helped boost agricultural production and spurred economic growth.

In 1990-2, the number of undernourished people in China was 194 million, or 16 percent of the population, whereas in 2001-3, it was 150 million, or 12 percent, and the country is well on track for meeting the Millennium targets.

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