In this country, where childhood obesity is the buzzword for all issues surrounding children's health, it's easy to forget that many children around the world never have to worry about obesity because they never even have enough food to eat, let alone too much. But these children face an even more serious issue-- chronic malnutrition that stunts their growth, hinders their ability to learn, and forces them into a future of poverty.
According to UNICEF, about 165 million children worldwide are stunted by malnutrition. In addition, nearly half of all deaths of children under the age of five - or 3.1 million deaths a year - are caused by malnutrition. These numbers may be shocking to those who assume that malnutrition only means a lack of food. But UNICEF officials say malnutrition is occurring in countries where there is plenty of food to eat, but access to it is unequal and nutritional content can be low.
For example, in India, a country that is concerned "food-secure," UNICEF estimates that 48 percent of children are stunted. It's even higher in poorer countries such as Yemen where roughly 60 percent of children are stunted.
Stunting occurs when a baby is malnourished in the first 1,000 or so days of life, including during gestation. The effects are not just physical, but mental as well. And they are irreversible. While a hungry child can be fed, a child that has been stunted due to malnutrition will have reduced mental capacity by the age of around two years old. A report from the Save the Children fund found that stunted children are 12.5 percent more likely to make a mistake writing a simple sentence and seven percent more likely to make a mistake doing simple math than children who do suffer from malnutrition.
UNICEF is hoping to raise awareness about malnutrition and generate funds to address the issue. The organization says it will focus for now on 20 countries - mostly in Africa and Asia - in which 70 percent of the world's stunted children now live. The group hopes to create community-based programs that will promote more nutritious foods, encourage exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby's life and provide vitamin supplements to boost vitamin A, folic acid, zinc and iron for children and pregnant women.
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