By Ochieng’ Ogodo
[NAIROBI] Africa is now a home to 15 million children suffering from chronic malnutrition compared to 1990. This is figure is expected to reach 8.5 million by the close of this decade if no serious interventions are taken.
A global report by Save the Children released February 15 revealed that, today, two in five African children or 60 million children are malnourished.
The report says that in Kenya, the number of children suffering from malnutrition has increased since 2003 and more than a third of the total children, 35.5 per cent, suffer from chronic malnutrition currently.
According to the report, 'A Life Free from Hunger: Tackling Child Malnutrition, the situation worsened last year as a result of the drought that affected the arid and semi-arid regions of northern Kenya.
Progress to tackle malnutrition has been slower in Kenya and Africa generally than anywhere else in the world. Soaring food prices and economic downturn in the last year has made it even harder for families to buy enough of the right food for their children.
Half of the world’s malnourished children live in five countries – Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, India and Bangladesh –where half of all families have been forced to spend much less on food according the report.
The report is a snap-shot of the hardship that families are facing in countries where, even before food price spikes, many of the poorest children were already surviving on a diet dominated by a basic staple meal such as white rice, maize or cassava, which have very low nutritional value.
Save the Children has shown that rising food prices and malnutrition are putting additional pressure on countries with already high burdens of child mortality.
The report warns that over the next 15 years, a further half a billion children’s lives around the world will be left blighted by malnutrition unless something is done now.
Prasant Naik, Kenya Country Director, Save the Children UK says, “The government of Kenya has made some achievements in reducing hunger and malnutrition. However, the country still lacks a strong political will to tackle child malnutrition, or nutrition champions to lobby for the right policies and practice. There is very weak coordination between the authorities and aid agencies and funding levels for hunger and nutrition have remained low with a greater focus on other sectors.”
Naik applauds the response to last year’s drought but is concerned that chronic malnutrition is not receiving the response it demands. “Chronic malnutrition is suffered by millions of Kenyan children and who remain relatively neglected. This is a crisis that we cannot ignore any more as mortality rates due to malnutrition continue to rise. Stunting impedes the mental and physical development of a child. The child can never reach their full potential, and that undermines the human capital to drive the economy.”
Malnutrition is said to be accounting for a third of all child deaths worldwide, or 2.6 million per year. But it continues attract lo profile investment as opposed to other causes of child mortality like HIV, AIDS or malaria. Child mortality rates from malaria have been cut by a third since 2000, but child malnutrition rates in Africa have decreased by less than 0.3 per cent.
Human and economic costs occasioned by chronic malnutrition are huge. A chronically malnourished child can have an IQ of up to 15 points less than a child properly nourished. Kenya, it is estimated, lost 95 billion shillings due to stunting in 2010 while the cost of child malnutrition to the global economy was nearly KShs. 10 trillion.
A substantial increase in investment will be required to expediting practical and basic solutions, which have a high impact on tackling malnutrition. The 1,000 days between pregnancy and age two are the window of opportunity and intervention that are most important to focus on this period.
Iron and foliate supplementation during pregnancy, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, micronutrient supplementation, complementary feeding, good hygiene practices, de-worming and zinc supplementation have proved effective. Additionally, better investment in cash transfers targeted at the poorest families can reduce families’ vulnerability to fluctuating food prices.
Save the Children has celled for increased budgetary allocation to the health sector, specifically to nutrition related interventions and a multi-sectoral engagement to fund and implement the National Nutrition Action Plan, the country’s blueprint on nutrition intervention.
The organisation also wants nutrition indicators included as a measure for economic growth along with infrastructure, favourable investment environment and sound fiscal policies.
“Malnutrition is increasingly recognised as one of the biggest threats to sustainable economic and social development, but not receiving the commensurate funding and more children continue to die every hour. We need to appreciate the gravity of the situation and take action to channel the manpower, the intellect and resources, coupled with the much needed political will to alleviate malnutrition,” said Wanja Gitonga, Every One Campaign Manager, Save the Children.
“We know what works, but we need an emphatic political will to prioritise malnutrition, keep it at the top, scale up intervention at the national and sub-national levels.”
►The survey results showed that in India, one of the world’s biggest boom economies and where half of all children are stunted, more than a quarter of parents surveyed said their children went without food sometimes or often.
►In Nigeria, nearly a third of parents had pulled their children out of school so they could work to help pay for food.
►In Bangladesh, 87 per cent of those surveyed said the price of food had been their most pressing concern in 2010.