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India's children stunted, undernourished, wasted: UN

By Betwa Sharma
November 12, 2009 09:25 IST
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India has the largest number of stunted children below the age of five in the world, according to the latest United Nations Children's Fund report.

Approximately 200 million children, under the age of five, suffer from stunted growth in the developing world. The report 'Tracking Progress on Child and Maternal Nutrition' found that stunting is primarily caused due to childhood under-nutrition, which contributes to more than a third of all deaths in children under five.

India also has one of the highest numbers of underweight children, below the age of five, and one third of 'wasted children' -- those facing a greater chance of death -- in the world.

Out of a total of 19 million newborns per year in the developing world that are born with low birth-weight, India has 7.4 million low birth-weight babies per year -- the highest in the world. The report finds that 80 per cent of the developing world's stunted children live in 24 countries.

"Under-nutrition steals a child's strength and makes illnesses that the body might otherwise fight off far more dangerous," said UNICEF chief Ann M Veneman. "More than one-third of children, who die of pneumonia, diarrhoea and other illnesses, could have survived had they not been undernourished," she added.

India, however, does not have the highest prevalence of stunted children as the high numbers was due to its large population.

In terms of prevalence, Afghanistan was first while India was 12th. In 17 countries, underweight prevalence among children under 5 years old is greater than 30 per cent. The rates were highest in Bangladesh, India, Timor-Leste and Yemen,` with more than 40 per cent of children being underweight.

The study also found that 13 per cent of children, under 5 years old, in the developing world were wasted, and 5 per cent were severely wasted (an estimated 26 million children).

A number of African and Asian countries have wasting rates that exceed 15 per cent, including India (20 per cent) Bangladesh (17 per cent), and Sudan (16 per cent). The country with the highest prevalence of wasting in the world is Timor-Leste, where 25 per cent of children under 5 years old are wasted.

Timor Leste is followed by India. "At such elevated levels, wasting is considered a public health emergency requiring immediate intervention, in the form of emergency feeding programmes," the UN report said. The 1,000 days --from conception until a child's second birthday -- are the most critical for a child's development, the study suggests.

"Those who survive under-nutrition often suffer poorer physical health throughout their lives, and damaged cognitive abilities that limit their capacity to learn and to earn a decent income," the UNICEF chief said.

"They become trapped in an intergenerational cycle of ill-health and poverty," she added. On the positive side, the report finds that while 90 per cent of children who are stunted live in Asia and Africa, progress has been made on both continents.

In Asia, the prevalence of stunting dropped from approximately 44 per cent in 1990 to an estimated 30 per cent in 2008, while in Africa it fell from approximately 38 per cent in 1990 to an estimated 34 per cent in 2008.

"Unless attention is paid to addressing the causes of child and maternal undernutrition today, the costs will be considerably higher tomorrow," Veneman said.

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