Malnutrition kills 10 children every minute, says UN

By Maxine Frith, Social Affairs Correspondent
Published in The Independent: 03 May 2006

Ten children die every minute as a result of malnutrition, more than a quarter of children in developing countries are underweight and suffer disease because of their poor diet, and in some areas almost half of all under-fives are malnourished, a new United Nations report says.

Unicef warns that the slow progress on reducing nutritional problems among children means that several key Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets may now be missed. Ann Veneman, executive director of Unicef, said: "The lack of progress to combat malnutrition is damaging children and nations. Few things have more impact than nutrition on a child's ability to survive, learn effectively and escape a life of poverty."

The first MDG, agreed by the world's leaders, pledged to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015. Ms Veneman said: "We still have time to achieve this goal, but only if the international community acts now to deliver the commitments and resources it has promised."

The Unicef report found that 146 million children under five in the developing world are suffering from insufficient food intake, repeated infectious diseases, muscle wastage and vitamin deficiencies. While some countries, notably China and Latin American nations, have made progress in reducing undernutrition among children, the overall fall in rates is much slower than the 2.8 per cent annual reduction needed to hit the MDG.

Three quarters of the 146 million undernourished children come from just 10 countries. India accounts for 57 million of the total.

Bangladesh and Pakistan each have 8 million children suffering as a result of hunger. Almost half of all children in south Asia are underweight and girls are more likely to be victims of a poor diet than boys, the report found. However, while south Asian countries are beginning to reduce rates of undernourishment, levels are continuing to rise in Africa.

More than half - 57 per cent - of children in Burundi have stunted growth as a result of poor diet and the proportion of underweight children in South Africa has been increasing by 5 per cent a year.

The HIV pandemic has meant the agricultural productivity in many sub-Saharan countries has been reduced.

The proportion of children who are underweight in Iraq is "substantially higher" than in 1990, the report found, with 16 per cent going hungry.

Yemen and Sudan also have high rates that have been worsened by conflict, drought and other problems.

For the MDG to be hit, countries need to reduce rates of undernutrition by an average of 2.8 per cent a year. At present the overall reduction is averaging at 1.7 per cent a year.

The report called for better public health initiatives, such as adding iodising salt to reduce deficiencies, and more help for the poorest nations, particularly those with high rural populations.

The report also warned that more than 170 million children, mainly in the developed world, are now considered to be overweight or obese, including 22 million under the age of five.