NEW YORK/ ADDIS ABABA, 14 October 2016 – Five in six children under two years old are not fed enough nutritious food for their age, depriving them of the energy and nutrients they need at the most critical time in their physical and cognitive development, according to a new UNICEF report.
“Infants and young children have the greatest nutrient needs than at any other time in life. But the bodies and brains of millions of young children do not reach their full potential because they are receiving too little food, too late,” said France Begin, Senior Nutrition Adviser at UNICEF. “Poor nutrition at such a young age causes irreversible mental and physical damage.”
UNICEF data show that poor nutritional practices– including the delayed introduction of solid foods, infrequent meals and lack of food variety – are widespread, depriving children of essential nutrients when their growing brains, bones and bodies need them the most. The findings reveal that:
- Young children wait too long for their first bites. One in five babies hasn’t been fed any solid foods by the age of 11 months.
- Half of children aged six months to two years are not fed the minimum number of meals for their age, increasing their risk of stunting.
- Less than one-third of children in this age group eat a diverse diet – meaning from four or more food groups daily – causing deficiencies in vitamins and minerals.
- Almost half of pre-school aged children suffer from anaemia.
- Only half of children aged six to 11 months receive any foods from animal sources – including fish, meat, eggs and dairy – which are essential to supply zinc and iron.
- The high cost of foods from animal sources makes it difficult for the poorest families to improve their children’s diet. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, only one in six children from the poorest households aged six to 11 months eats a minimally diverse diet, compared to one in three from the richest households.
- Improving nutrition for young children could save 100,000 lives a year.
Making nutritious foods affordable and accessible to the poorest children will require stronger and more targeted investments from governments and the private sector. Cash or in-kind transfers to vulnerable families; crop diversification programmes; and fortification of staple foods are key to improving nutrition for young children. Community-based health services that help caregivers learn better feeding practices, and safe water and sanitation – absolutely critical in preventing diarrhoea among children – are also vital.
“We cannot afford to fail in our fight to improve nutrition for young children. Their ability to grow, learn and contribute to their country’s future depends on it,” Begin said.
Ethiopia has experienced rapid, sustained improvement in under-nutrition during the past 15 years. For example, the country has seen a steady reduction in stunting – the fastest rate of improvement in Africa – and a decline in the percentage of underweight and wasted children. Yet, Ethiopia remains in a precarious situation, with large absolute numbers of affected children: 5.3 million children are stunted and 1.2 million children suffer wasting. UNICEF’s nutrition programme collaborates with the Government of Ethiopia to reduce these numbers further, working on multi-sectoral coordination to improve the nutrition of all children, pregnant and lactating women and their families
The Government of Ethiopia recognizes that addressing malnutrition is essential to achieving sustainable development. It therefore has issued the Seqota Declaration to end child malnutrition by 2030. The Declaration lays out a plan to stop the cycle of under-nutrition by bringing together all sectors of the Government, paying particular attention to the importance of nutrition during pregnancy and in the first years of a child’s life.
Over the past decade, Ethiopia has seen a steady reduction in stunting from 58 per cent in 2000 to 40 per cent 2014, in the percentage of underweight children from 41 per cent to 25 per cent, and in wasting from 12 per cent to 9 percent (Mini EDHS: 2014)
These trends indicate an improvement in chronic malnutrition over the past 15 years. Yet, 28 per cent of child deaths in Ethiopia is associated with under-nutrition. In addition to this high contribution to the under-five mortality rate, high prevalence of various forms of malnutrition among vulnerable groups in Ethiopia has serious implications for social development and economic growth. In a study conducted in 2009, the total annual cost of under-nutrition was estimated at US$2,775,000, equivalent to 17 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2009.
UNICEF’s strategies for nutrition ensure the achievements of results in four areas: 1) upstream nutrition policy support and multi-sectoral engagement; 2) improved nutrition knowledge and caring behaviours; 3) strengthening of systems for nutrition service delivery; and 4) strengthening partner capacities to respond to nutrition in humanitarian crises.
To accelerate the reduction of chronic and acute malnutrition, UNICEF is working in partnership with sectoral government counterparts, including in health, agriculture, education, social protection, trade and industry, and women, children and youth affairs.
UNICEF also works with United Nations agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), World Food Programme (WFP) and World Health Organization (WHO); UNICEF National Committees; donors such as the aid agencies of Canada, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the European Union; civil society organizations; and local and international academic institutions.