Nutrition: Key facts and figures
Press Releases
Nutrition: Key facts and figures

Some 148 million children under five in the developing world – or one in four – suffer from undernutrition, more than half of them in South Asia which has the highest rate of child malnutrition in the world with 41 per cent. In sub-Saharan Africa 24 per cent of children are undernourished. 

Low birth weight, which is related to maternal malnutrition and maternal anaemia, is one of the causal factors in 60 to 80 per cent of neonatal deaths. For example, in India 59 per cent of pregnant women are anaemic, in Nepal 75 per cent and in Sri Lanka 30 per cent. 

High coverage with optimal breastfeeding practices, especially exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, could have the single biggest impact on child survival, with the potential to prevent 1.4 million under-five deaths, yet rates of exclusive breastfeeding are only 39 per cent in developing countries;

Although about 70 per cent of the world’s households now use iodized salt, still thirty-eight million children worldwide remain unprotected from potential brain damage and reduced learning performance caused by iodine deficiency disorder, a condition that is avoided by the use of iodized salt. (In sub-Saharan Africa, 64 per cent of households use iodized salt, in South Asia 51 per cent) 

Sixty-seven per cent of all children in sub-Saharan Africa receive at least one dose of vitamin A supplementation, with double-dose coverage increasing nearly fourfold between 1999 and 2007, which markedly reduces child morbidity, mortality and nutrition-related blindness. In South Asia 64 per cent of children receive one dose of vitamin A.

Infant Feeding

UNICEF advocates for initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour of birth, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and once child turns six months - after 180 days of life - appropriate and complementary feeding should be introduced to provide infants with critical nutrients and protection against deadly diseases. At the same time breastfeeding should continue for two years or more, together with nutritionally adequate, safe, complementary feeding. 

The agency works with partners, governments and communities to improve infant and young child feeding practices, focusing on national level support for policy development, planning and legislation, health system actions to ensure baby friendly maternity and infant care and build capacities of health workers, boosting resources for new mothers at community level, support for communication for behaviour and social change and support for infant feeding in especially difficult circumstances such as emergencies and in the context of HIV/AIDS.

Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM)

This is the most dangerous level of malnutrition - a child with severe acute malnutrition is too ill to digest home cooked or other foods and hospitalisation is often costly, and adds extra burden to the mother and family since a child can take more than one month to recover.

Consequently UNICEF supports the widespread adoption of the community-based approach to management of severe acute malnutrition as long as there are no medical complications. Where there are additional medical complications, clinic or hospital management is necessary and requires different therapeutic treatment.

Community-based approaches involve timely detection of severe acute malnutrition in the community and the provision of treatment for those without medical complications using ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF) at home. RUTF is a treatment and it can also be administered by caregivers or mothers and does not require added water. This prevents further illness and contamination of the foods through bacterial content in the water. Boiled, cooled water is given to a child separately but not mixed with the paste.

If properly combined with facility-based care for those with complications and implemented on a large scale, this approach can prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children. 

RUTF pastes (typically made from peanut, oil, milk, sugar and micronutrients but other formulas are also being developed), have been saving lives for years - restoring weight and health to millions of severely malnourished children. This avoids hospitalization, which is often a burden of time and money for families coping with severely malnourished children.

UNICEF is the largest global purchaser of RUTF, providing this high-energy, fortified food for the treatment of children with severe acute malnutrition.  UNICEF is also working with partners and industry to scale up locally-produced RUTF made from locally available foods as a sustainable way of meeting demand and the development of local capacity.

For more information, please contact:

Angela Walker, Communication Chief, UNICEF India.
Tel: +91-11-2460-6228,  e-mail:

Geetanjali Master, Communication Specialist, UNICEF India
Tel: +91-11-2460-6455; e-mail:

Alistair Gretarsson, Communication Specialist, UNICEF India
Tel: +91-11-2460-6265; e-mail:

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