A Global Imperative: Ending Child Malnutrition

Ed note. This is a guest post by Gary Darmstadt, who leads the Family Health Division of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Over the last 50 years, the global community has made amazing progress reducing poverty, extreme hunger, and disease. Advances in global health and development have led to a dramatic reduction in child deaths.

Yet, new research published this week in the medical journal, The Lancet, underscores one area – undernutrition in young children – where there is a lot more work to do. According to the latest studies, undernutrition is the single largest contributor to child mortality worldwide, accounting for 45% of all child deaths.

On Saturday, the UK government is hosting an international summit aimed at shining a spotlight on this problem and bringing together business leaders, scientists, governments, and civil society to make the financial and political commitments needed to tackle the problem.

Some people call undernutrition “hidden hunger” because in many instances children may not look overtly sick or starving. But, in fact, they’re not getting enough of the right kinds of nutrients needed to help their brain and body grow.

This can lead to a form of undernutrition known as stunting – which affects 165 million children – about one of every four children under age 5. Stunting doesn’t just mean some children are shorter than average. When children don’t get the right nutrition in the first 1000 days of life – from the start of their mother’s pregnancy until their second birthday – it permanently affects their brain development. From that point on, they’re never going to achieve their potential – in school or in the workplace.

There is still more we need to understand about nutrition – especially the link between agriculture and nutrition. But over the past few years, our foundation and others have been investing in research that shows a few key strategies can significantly reduce stunting:

-Improving maternal nutrition before and during pregnancy with inexpensive supplements.

-Immediate and exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of an infant’s life

-From six months to 24 months, ensuring that children get all the nutrients they need through continued breastfeeding and introduction of healthy complementary feeding.

We are also excited about new ways that scientists are improving the nutritional content of staple crops that people in poor countries grow and eat every day, such as maize, rice, wheat, sweet potatoes, cassava, millet, and beans.

As a global community, we have proven that we can successfully address some of the world’s biggest problems. Building on the latest scientific research about undernutrition – and the momentum around the Nutrition for Growth summit – we must seize the opportunity and work toward a day when every child has the opportunity for a healthy start at life.

Dr. Gary L. Darmstadt leads the Family Health Division of the foundation, comprising the Maternal, Neonatal, and Child Health (MNCH), Family Planning, and Nutrition strategic project teams.