Comment: Stop children dying of malnutrition

Addressing child malnourishment is a cost-effective way of lifting people out of poverty. So why don't we do something about it?

By Justin Forsyth

Over the past two decades Britain has had something of an awakening in its relationship with food. Healthy eating has become firmly embedded in the public consciousness; from the public outcry over Turkey Twizzlers to the provision of nutritional information on food packaging, we’ve never been more aware that we are what we eat.

And people are what they eat in the developing world as well. For millions of families in the world’s poorest countries, their diet comes nowhere near meeting their nutritional requirements. The result is the deaths of millions of children too weak to fight off illness, and hundreds of millions more left suffering from a condition called stunting.

We don’t hear much about this silent crisis, because the symptoms of chronic malnutrition are less stark than those of acute hunger. There are no swollen bellies, sunken cheeks and twig-like limbs. Chronically malnourished children may not even look particularly thin. The issue is not just how much they eat, but the quality of the food – cassava or maize provides energy to move, but not much else.

Chronic malnutrition may not make for shocking television news pictures, but it is no less deadly than acute hunger. 2.6 million children will die this year because they have not had the right nutrients to fight off diseases that a properly nourished child would survive. It may not appear on their death certificates, but chronic malnutrition lays the groundwork for millions of deaths a year.

Almost as bad are the children for whom malnutrition is not a death sentence but a life sentence, children who never fulfil their potential because they can’t grow as much physically or mentally. Sometimes you can spot them – children smaller than others, more listless, staying at home while others go to school. Many will never recover; they are less likely to finish school or to find a good job, and will carry the burden of poor nutrition for life.

I’ve just returned from Afghanistan, where six out of ten children suffer from malnutrition. Mohamed Jan is one of them. I met him at a district hospital supported by Save the Children. At just seven months old, he weighs only 4.6kg – less than some newborn babies- and is already dangerously malnourished. The treatment he receives will help bring Mohamed back from the brink, but he is one of the lucky ones. Many do not receive help.

For Afghanistan, already one of the world’s poorest countries, malnutrition on this scale represents an enormous loss of human potential. A nation’s prospects depend upon those of its population; no country can be more than the sum of it parts.

Rising food prices threaten to draw more people into the trap of chronic malnutrition. New research by Save the Children has revealed that families around the world have been forced to cut back on the food they buy. 80 per cent of those we asked in countries struggling with high rates of malnutrition said that the price of food was their most pressing concern.

This will no doubt chime with reality for many families here, but there is a key difference; one in six of the parents we surveyed said their children were skipping school to work for food.

So what can be done? Isn't the world always going to have to live with hunger? The short answer is no. We’ve already made good progress in some countries. Vietnam and Cambodia are reducing malnutrition rates by more than 3% a year, and in China, the rate is dropping at 6 per cent per annum.

This is translates to thousands of children who have been given a real chance in life.

At the most basic level, we know what works. Simple steps like ensuring women are able to breastfeed properly, fortifying foods with essential vitamins and minerals, and targeting pregnant women and young children with nutritional supplements can stop millions of deaths, and give hundreds of millions the chance of a full life.

And it wouldn’t cost that much to do. The World Bank estimates it would cost £6.3 billion a year to provide 13 key malnutrition preventions and treatments to the most vulnerable families around the world. In comparison, the cost of treating obesity in the UK alone is expected to reach a similar figure by 2015.

The potential benefits of this spending are enormous. A meeting of development economists in Copenhagen in 2008 found that that boosting nutrients to children in the developing world would be the most cost-effective way of lifting people out of poverty.

We know that global political impetus is the best weapon against child mortality. With the support of world leaders, we've made amazing breakthroughs in bringing down the number of child deaths over the past two decades. Last year, the Prime Minister showed powerful leadership in helping the world's poorest children, galvanising global action and funds to secure vaccinations for millions of children and potentially saving four million lives.

Now we want David Cameron to do the same to stop children dying because of malnutrition. That's why we're asking him to lead the biggest push in history to reduce hunger, and hold a World Hunger Summit to agree and fund concrete action to tackle this silent crisis. At stake is hard-fought momentum in our fight against child mortality, and with it, the lives of thousands of children.

Justin Forsyth is chief executive of Save the Children.

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