Most people have never heard of stunting. It’s one of the least reported, least recognized, least understood issues facing humanity, yet tackling it should be seen as an opportunity both for personal health and national development.
Stunting, caused by chronic undernutrition in children, does not only affect a person’s growth or height. The damage that undernutrition causes to a brain’s cognitive capacity is permanent. It cannot be reversed.
As UNICEF documented in its 2013 report, ‘Improving Child Nutrition: The achievable imperative for global progress’, chronic undernutrition scars the lives of some 165 million children around the world. Undernutrition contributes to half of all child deaths and around one fifth of maternal deaths.
Stunting traps people into a lifelong cycle of poor nutrition, illness, poverty and inequity. Children’s poorer school performance results in future income reductions of up to 22 per cent on average. As adults, they are also at increased risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Despite the challenges, we can and must win the battle against stunting and other forms of undernutrition – and investing in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life shapes the future of nations.
Experts have consistently confirmed that taking action on undernutrition is the single most important, cost-effective means of advancing human well-being. This would accelerate the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, would save lives and should be a top global priority.
We know what works and what needs to be done to radically reduce stunting and undernutrition: from micronutrient and vitamin supplements to awareness raising, promoting exclusive breastfeeding and treating severe and acute malnutrition. Efforts should also be linked to improving access to education and safe water, promoting hygiene, preventing and treating diseases, and strengthening social safety nets.
Over the past 20 years alone, the number of stunted children under the age of five in the world has fallen by 88 million – from 40 to 26 per cent, or a one-third reduction.
However, a brand new Lancet series on nutrition from 6 June 2013 shows that progress is not fast enough. What is needed now is strong, global commitment and leadership to accelerate efforts.
UNICEF is a proud partner in the major global initiative called the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, which is bringing much needed focus and investment for nutrition in a number of countries. Through the SUN country network, government focal points from each of the 40 countries involved share experiences, seek advice and provide each other with assistance, analyses of progress and lessons learned.
Broader efforts to address child survival are also galvanizing partnerships. Governments including those of Ethiopia, India and the U.S. have thrown their weight behind the A Promise Renewed movement, which – with supported by UNICEF – is uniting governments, civil society, faith based leaders and private sector around the clear and compelling goal: to end preventable child deaths and give every last child the best possible start in life.
No child, no mother, no country should ever have to suffer the injustice of a lack of nutrition in the 21st century. We cannot stand by and allow a child to be condemned to a life of deprivation – especially when we know how to prevent it.
For updates on what the United States is doing to improve nutrition, follow the hashtags #Nutrition4Growth and #GHmatters on Twitter.