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47% of children in India are underweight: Unicef

Over half the world's underweight children live in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, says a new Unicef report on the global progress on children's issues. About 5.6 million children worldwide die every year for lack of adequate nutrients

Approximately 47% of India's under-five population is underweight, according to 'Progress for Children: A Report Card on Nutrition', based on a new worldwide study by the United Nations children's agency Unicef. This high percentage is matched by the much poorer African nation of Ethiopia. Only Bangladesh and Nepal have a higher child undernourishment rate at 48%.

Nearly three-quarters of the world's underweight children live in just ten countries, and over half in just three South Asian countries -- Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Together, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan account for half of all the world's underweight children. In fact, India has more undernourished children that Africa, at 51 million, compared to the continent's 47 million. According to the Unicef report, there was only a 1.6% improvement in the number of undernourished under-five-year-olds in India between 1990 and 2004.

The report finds that South Asia is the only region which shows a gender bias with regard to child nourishment, with girls more likely to be underweight than boys. One in three adult women in India is underweight and therefore at risk of delivering babies with low birth weight.

Developing-world averages for underweight children have dropped just five percentage points in the last 15 years. Today, 27% of children in developing countries are underweight - that's around 146 million children.

Poor nutrition remains a global epidemic contributing to more than half of all child deaths annually, according to Unicef ,Worldwide, about 5.6 million children die every year because they are not getting enough of the right kind of nutrients.

Globally, the proportion of children under age five who are underweight has fallen only slightly since 1990 -- proof that the world is failing to address children's issues. "The lack of progress to combat undernutrition is damaging children and nations," said Unicef's Executive Director Ann M Veneman. "Few things have more impact than nutrition on a child's ability to survive, learn effectively and escape a life of poverty."

Unicef's report card on nutrition, the fourth in a series that monitors how well nations are keeping their promises to improve children's lives, charts national and regional progress towards the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 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 undernutrition. But current trends show the world is still far off track.

Only two regions of the world, Latin America and the Caribbean and the East Asian and Pacific countries, are on track to meet the MDG target of reducing the prevalence of underweight children

Undernutrition is the result of insufficient food intake, repeated infectious diseases and lack of care. It stunts children's growth and development and, in girls, their later ability to bear healthy children. "Hunger and undernutrition lead and contribute to some of the world's most intractable problems," says Veneman. "It contributes significantly to a cycle of poverty. It hurts children in their ability to learn. It hurts children in their ability to develop and it hurts children in their ability to resist serious diseases."

The figures on undernourishment are just the tip of the iceberg, according to Unicef. "For every visibly undernourished child, there are several more battling a hidden nutritional crisis," Veneman said. "Many are seriously deficient in essential vitamins and minerals such as iodine, vitamin A and iron."

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies may not be visible but their consequences can be witnessed worldwide. These critical nutrients are essential to the development of children's bodies and minds without them, children become easy prey for common diseases and underperform at school. For example, a lack of iodine in household diets leaves 37 million newborns vulnerable to learning disabilities every year. And iron deficiency is a major cause of maternal deaths.

Eliminating these deficiencies can boost a nation's development indicators, observes the report, since good nutrition is essential for achieving the MDGs, from eradicating poverty to making sure that children can go to school, and from reducing maternal mortality to combating major diseases.

Because the roots of undernutrition lie in poverty, lack of education and inequality, fighting the problem will take more than food deliveries, according to the Unicef report. Unsafe feeding practices and repeated bouts of illness such as diarrhoea and malaria are all major factors depriving children of nutrients. And in sub-Saharan Africa, HIV/AIDS is robbing millions of children of the support they need to be adequately fed and cared for.

The report calls urgently for a nutrition "safety net" to guarantee children's access to these services every day. This means making child nutrition a central component of national policies and budgets, providing better nutrition information and resources for families, and planning to cope with emergencies

The Unicef report lays emphasis on the first two years of life -- a critical window of opportunity to safeguard children's future potential. Young bodies and brains may never recover from the effects of poor nutrition during this development stage, the organisation notes. A healthy, well-nourished pregnancy is an essential first step in safeguarding a child's future.

Great progress on tackling poor nutrition among children has been made through a number of simple, proven strategies:

  • Vitamin A supplements have saved hundreds of thousands of children's lives
  • Some 82 million newborns are protected from iodine deficiency every year, thanks to campaigns to iodise salt
  • Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of infancy is one of the simplest and most effective ways to save a child's life.

InfoChange News & Features, May 2006