South Asia carries bulk of maternal and child undernutrition, says UNICEF
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South Asia carries bulk of maternal and child undernutrition, says UNICEF

KATHMANDU, 11 November 2009 – Most of the world’s chronically undernourished under fives – 83 million children -- are in South Asia, according to a new UNICEF report: ‘Improving Child and Maternal Nutrition,’ released today.

Global child undernutrition is concentrated to just 24 countries and the top five which carry the bulk of the burden are South Asian countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nepal. All these countries have rates of more than 40 percent.*

“Undernutrition steals a child’s strength and makes illnesses that the body might otherwise fight off far more dangerous,” said Ann M. Veneman UNICEF Executive Director.
Cutting undernutrition is entirely feasible. The first 1,000 days – from before birth until the age of two – are the most critical for any child. Nutritional deficiencies during this “critical window of opportunity” can forever reduce a child’s ability to fight and survive disease, and impair their social and mental capacities. After the age of two, that window closes and the opportunity for the child to thrive is lost. 

“The paradox of South Asia is that despite healthy levels of economic growth in many countries, chronic undernutrition remains persistently and unacceptably high,” said Regional Director for UNICEF South Asia, Daniel Toole. “For far too long the nutrition of under-twos and pregnant women has been neglected. Too many interventions focus primarily on children older than two years and that is simply too late to make a lasting difference.”

Undernutrition diminishes a child’s ability to learn and then earn. Nutritional deficiencies and deprivations leave children stunted, slow, tired and listless with lower IQs that hold back their performance well into adulthood. Chronically undernourished children are more prone to suffer from serious infections and die from common childhood illness such as diarrhoea, measles, pneumonia and malaria as well as HIV and AIDS.

The report presents recent survey-based data on global prevalence of undernutrition (stunting, wasting, underweight) but highlights stunting in particular of great concern as it is closely linked to child mortality, chronic disease in adult life and a predictor of a child’s brain development. This leads to reduced learning and reduced income earning capacity in adult life. Children suffering from severe acute undernutrition are nine times more likely to die than children who are not undernourished. For these children, the most vulnerable of all, therapeutic feeding is critical and experience shows that community-based approaches work best.

Breastfeeding within one hour of birth and exclusively for at least six months, is the single intervention with the largest impact on child survival, potentially reducing under five child mortality by 12-15 per cent in developing countries.

The report identifies 24 countries in which more than 80% of the world's stunted children live. Up-to-date nutrition data profiles for each of the 24 countries are presented showing prevalence of undernutrition, coverage of key interventions, information on policies, as well as nutrition-related health, water and sanitation indicators. Coverage of interventions such as breastfeeding, salt iodization and vitamin A supplementation is also presented.

Across South Asia, harmful cultural and traditional practices such as child marriage, lead to many women giving birth young. They are told to eat less during pregnancy – for easier delivery – they’re anemic and undernourished, and as a result have low birthweight babies who may survive but not thrive. Less than a third of mothers in these five top countries initiate breastfeeding within the first hour or even the first three days after birth.

The report makes a compelling case for the rapid scale-up of successful nutrition programmes and interventions. Huge strides have been made in delivering cost-effective solutions such as micronutrients to vulnerable populations worldwide. What is needed is equal attention to proper care and feeding of children between six months and two years. Near universal salt iodization and Vitamin A coverage, infant and child mortality have meant child mortality has significantly decreased.

Acting today will prevent problems from escalating tomorrow. This is not just about food. It is about giving the right kinds of food and care at the right age – promoting immediate and exclusive breastfeeding, complementary, age-appropriate food to children from six months to two years of age and targeting teenage girls before they’re pregnant. These are the most powerful investments a country can make.

“Although child undernutrition is a major obstacle to development in the region, it is not insurmountable - we do know what works and we have seen other emerging economies in South East Asia and Brazil, pull their youngest citizens out of this chronic and dangerous cycle,” said UNICEF’s Daniel Toole. “What is required now is strong leadership at the highest level. Without strategic investments in nutrition, economic growth alone cannot and will not make a lasting difference. This is an urgent health priority -- 83 million children across South Asia are waiting.” 

*24 countries bear 80 percent of the global burden of under nutrition amongst under fives. South Asian countries with under nutrition rates of more than 40% of their under five population are:

1. Afghanistan 59 % or 2.9m  under fives moderately or severely stunted
2. Nepal          49 %    1.75m
3. India           48 %    61m
4. Bangladesh  43 %    7.2m
5. Pakistan       42%     9.9m

South Asia makes up nearly 83million in total. Rest of the world: 72 million.


UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. 

UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.

For further information please contact:

Sarah Crowe Regional Chief of Communications UNICEF South Asia +919910532314

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