What You Need to Know About Child Malnutrition


From the moment a child is conceived, a clock starts ticking.

Every second in the womb — up until a child’s second birthday — is described by nutritionists as the “golden window.” The nourishment a child receives during these first 1,000 days will shape his or her potential — not for just a year, but for an entire lifetime.

For children fleeing conflict, this golden window can be especially precarious. In Bangladesh, malnutrition threatens scores of Rohingya boys and girls under the age of two whose families have fled violence. Every day without food risks a more tenuous future.

When it comes to child nutrition, the stakes are forever.

“If your child can make it to two or three years old and have all the nutrients they need, they have a much better chance of being healthy throughout the rest of their life,” says Lauren Landis, Director of Nutrition for the World Food Programme (WFP).

Right now, one out of every three children under the age of five is suffering from the irreversible consequences of malnutrition. It’s a frightening statistic that has put reducing child malnutrition at the top of WFP’s agenda for saving lives.

What is child malnutrition?

Malnutrition, or “hidden hunger,” affects hundreds of millions of children across the globe. When deprived of crucial vitamins and minerals like Vitamin A, iron, iodine and zinc, the brain and body cannot develop properly. The consequences can be irrevocable.

At its worst, it can be life-threatening. Malnutrition kills more children each year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. In fact, nearly half of all deaths of children under the age of five can be traced to malnutrition.

What are the physical, mental and emotional effects of malnutrition?

The effects of “hidden hunger” can be severe and life-changing. Malnutrition weakens a child’s immune system, impairs brain development and increases the risk of contracting disease. Over the long term, it endangers a child’s success as an adult by reducing productivity and also heightens the risk of premature death.

One of the most dramatic effects of child malnutrition is stunting, when chronic malnutrition causes the body to literally shrink itself to survive. Stunting can only be prevented; it cannot be reversed.

“A child who is severely stunted is sentenced to a life of underachievement: diminished performance in school, lower productivity and wages in the workplace, more health problems throughout life, and a greater propensity for chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease as an adult,” writes author Roger Thurow in his book The First 1,000 Days.

Child malnutrition also has a disastrous effect on the global economy. According to WFP, malnutrition costs anywhere from $1.4-$2.1 trillion each year in lost productivity, increased health care costs and emergency services.

What does WFP do to prevent and treat child malnutrition?

WFP works to prevent and treat malnutrition by empowering vulnerable mothers and their families with access to specially formulated foods to meet their specific nutritional needs. For children, these foods include ready-to-use products like Plumpy’Sup, a fortified peanut-based paste that doesn’t require clean water, cooking or refrigeration.

Through community workshops with its partners on the ground, WFP also provides education on nutrition, sanitation and hygiene, including healthy breastfeeding practices for newborns and infants up to six months of age.

Because children are often the most vulnerable to hunger during times of crisis, WFP provides treatment for moderate acute malnutrition in hunger hotspots across the globe.

In northeast Nigeria, for example, children make up more than 50 percent of those displaced by Boko Haram’s violence. Right now hundreds of thousands of children in Nigeria are malnourished and need immediate support. In August, WFP provided lifesaving nutritional assistance to 158,000 children aged 6 to 23 months and 78,000 pregnant and nursing women.

WFP addresses the underlying causes of malnutrition by collaborating with key partners across the health, agriculture and education sectors. WFP is also building national capacity among its government partners to identify long-term solutions to malnutrition.

The bottom line? Every child deserves the opportunity to grow up and live a healthy life. Food is one of the most basic building blocks for a brighter future.

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