In recent decades, governments, civil society and the international community have rallied to take action on poverty and global health. Significant progress has been made to support vulnerable families across the world.
Sadly, despite this progress, more than one million children under five will die this year as a result of acute malnutrition. Millions more will have their futures blighted by chronic malnutrition, also known as stunting.
A child is acutely malnourished when his or her weight drops so low that they are at risk of dying. And a child is chronically malnourished, or stunted, when he or she is very short for their age – a condition which has long-term health and social impacts and also increases the risk of premature death.
The good news is that we can win the fight against deadly child hunger in our lifetime. All we need is the political will to make it a reality.
World leaders recently made a number of ambitious pledges to tackle different aspects of poverty, inequality and injustice – these pledges make up the Sustainable Development Goals, which came into being last January. Generation Nutrition campaigned for - and secured – a strong focus in these Goals on child malnutrition.
To reach these objectives, governments will need to make policy changes and commit more resources for reducing the number of children affected by, and dying from, malnutrition.
Treatment for every child
Every child who falls ill deserves the chance to get better. But at present, only one in 10 children with the severest form of acute malnutrition receives the life-saving treatment they need to survive.
A child can be easily diagnosed, for instance by using a tape to measure the circumference of their arm. In most cases, they can be treated at home with a supply of calorie-rich paste, full of the energy, vitamins and minerals they need to recover. In as little as six weeks, a child can be back on their feet, with their whole life ahead of them.
It is essential that every malnourished child has access to this treatment, free of charge. Governments must invest in health staff and in expanding health facilities, and do more to reduce the cost for families of accessing healthcare. Ensuring children are routinely checked for malnutrition whenever they seek medical treatment is imperative.
The path to prevention
Urgent action is required across sectors to stop children developing malnutrition in the first place, thereby preventing the risk of long-term health implications. Unhindered access to nutritious food, clean water, sanitation and healthcare, as well as good care practices for babies and small children, all help to prevent malnutrition.
Tonight, one in eight people worldwide will go to bed hungry.
It’s no surprise that a sudden lack of food can cause a child to develop life-threatening malnutrition.
Every child should have access to the basic nutritious food they need to survive and thrive. However, a shortage of food is a reality faced every day by many families whose incomes don’t cover the cost of food, or who do not have enough land to farm.
We want families to have land to cultivate, and the knowledge to farm it sustainably, so that they can produce the range and quantity of food they need. It is also important to boost family incomes, by investing in education and creating job opportunities.
Increasing communities’ resilience to predictable external shocks, such as the period between harvests when food becomes scarce, is vital.
And when emergencies strike, governments must act fast to reach affected communities with emergency food and other support, so that people can recover as quickly as possible.
Water and sanitation
Worldwide, 768 million people cannot reliably access clean and safe water. And more than a third of the world’s population cannot safely dispose of human waste.
On a daily basis, people are falling ill because of contaminated water sources, which allow disease to spread among communities.
Children who are already malnourished are more susceptible to picking up diarrhoeal infections spread by dirty water and poor hygiene practices because their immune systems are weaker. And, in turn, diarrhoea stops a child from absorbing vital nutrients and energy, which worsens the weight loss. So, a vicious circle develops that puts the child’s life at risk.
We want investment in water and sanitation to be accelerated so that every child has a reliable and safe water supply. Building proper latrines, or teaching the importance of hand washing, will help protect vulnerable children from developing malnutrition.
Health and care practices
Good care practices are at the heart of family and community health.
Targeting women with advice on subjects such as exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of their child’s life, or leaving longer gaps between their pregnancies, can reduce the risk of their child becoming malnourished.
Improving women’s access to education and community resources will empower them to provide the best care for both their children and themselves.
Proper access to health services is vital to the treatment and prevention of acute malnutrition. There is a strong link between diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, and malnutrition. By providing treatment for these diseases, governments will help to reduce the number of malnourished children. Giving appropriate vitamin and mineral supplements to infants is also one way of addressing deficiencies in ‘micro-nutrients’ – another major cause of malnutrition.