Nearly half sub-Saharan children malnourished

Posted: 10 August 2008

Despite past efforts by governments and aid agencies, undernutrition still affects 2-3 billion people worldwide. And, a new report reveals, the numbers affected are growing steadily worse in Africa.

According to WHO, the number pf children in sub-Saharan Africa suffering from malnutrition rose from 27 million in 1980 to 44 million in 2005. And the recent rise in food prices can only fuel this trend, says the report from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.

Malnourished children in Africa and Asia
Malnourished children in Africa and Asia
It says that in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, one third of children under 5 are chronically undernourished. But while in South Asia, the number of children under 5 who are low weight for age, or low height for age, has been steadily declining in most but not all countries - in sub-Saharan Africa, the number is steadily increasing.

The nutrition status of children is particularly important, it points out, because nutrition losses incurred in childhood represent losses children will carry throughout life.

Drought and displacement

Malnutrition affects about 30 per cent of children in Africa, caused by low birth weight and falteroing post-natal growth, and thde rates are worsened during droughts, economic crises, conflicts and displacement, and HIV.

However, the authors say, resilience to these crises is better than anticipated. And any progress towards reducing malnutrition is re-established when they recede. The provision of food or income support (through cash transfers) can help this resilience.

Examples for this include the Enhanced Outreach Strategy following drought in Ethiopia in the early 2000s, supplementary feeding programmes in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s, and other drought mitigation programmes in Botswana.

Malnourished boy Burkina Faso
Malnourished boy Burkina Faso
Malnourished boy Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso's government says 23 per cent acute malnutrition is not a crisis. Aid agencies say the government is the obstacle to making progress. Photo © Nicholas Reader/IRIN
Sustained improvement in the nutrition status of children requires fair social and economic development, they say. "Education is particularly important, notably for women. Community-based programmes and health services can reduce malnutrition, usually without food distribution. This has been seen in Tanzania through the Iringa and Child Health and Development programmes during the 1980-90's, and the Community Nutrition Project in Senegal in 1996." They add that experiences from effective community-based programmes in Asia and Latin America also need to be applied in Africa.

However, the long-term, "accelerating globalisation of food production, trade and marketing threatens the food security of poor communities in Africa." Removing barriers to trade (such as tariffs) and reductions in income support to farmers in richer countries would help to create greater export opportunities for African farmers. These actions would also reduce the price of food and other commodities imported into Africa. Both of these changes would improve the nutrition status of poor communities, the report adds.

"Without greater attention to nutrition, increased child mortality, morbidity and impaired intellectual development are inevitable."

The authors say that policies must tackle intermittent crises through emergency programmes and support sustained community-based programmes. Nutrition should be reinstated as a priority programme area alongside HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.

The report on 'Improving the nutrition status of children and women' is published in a special issue of 'id21 insights' newsletter (July 2008)which can be seen in full here

Authors of the article on the persistence of malnutrition in Africa are John Mason at the Department of International Health & Development, Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, New Orleans, USA and David Sanders at the Public Health Programme, University of the Western Cape, South Africa.