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Chronic Malnutrition a ‘Hidden Crisis’

A woman lies next to her child as he recuperates from malnutrition at a Doctors Without Borders clinic in southern Ethiopia in 2008. Photo by Siegfried Modola/AFP/Getty Images.

About 2 million children who are malnourished die each year worldwide, according to a United Nations estimate. Yet aid organizations say it’s tough to attract attention to the issue of chronic malnutrition in a preventative way — before it becomes severe and life-threatening.

Save the Children issued a report this week hoping to sound the alarm and highlight behavioral changes and other known practices that can help.

“Oftentimes, we all tend to fixate a bit on the acute side of malnutrition and what we typically have in our mind’s eye about a wasted emaciated child,” said Karin Lapping, senior director for nutrition at Save the Children. “But actually what is more prevalent and contributes more to child deaths at the end is chronic malnutrition.”

Globally, a quarter of all children are malnourished, but in some developing countries it can be as high as a third or even half, said Lapping. And being malnourished contributes to the life-threatening nature of other illnesses, such as childhood diarrhea and malaria, she said.

Cat Cora, a Greek-American professional chef and past winner in the “Iron Chef” television series, recently visited Ethiopia — where more than 40 percent of children are chronically malnourished — to learn about the problem and try to raise awareness in the United States.

“In the United States it’s very hard to understand the word ‘food insecurity,’ because we have such abundance here,” she said. But “I don’t care whether you live in Los Angeles or Ethiopia, mothers have the same concerns for their children” — they want them to grow and thrive.

Solutions exist right now to solve the problem, said Lapping. Save the Children’s report points to several solutions also outlined in a 2008 Lancet medical journal series on malnutrition:

  • breastfeeding until the child is 6 months old;
  • providing Vitamin A and zinc supplements to children;
  • fortifying staple foods at the production site, such as adding iron to flour in mills; and
  • encouraging healthy behaviors including hand-washing.

Products such as nutritionally enhanced peanut paste work for curative purposes, and are undergoing studies to see how they would work for prevention, said Lapping.

Several years ago, the French company Nutriset introduced Plumpy’nut, a product aimed at bringing severely malnourished children back to good health within weeks.

Many relief organizations have embraced the paste, in part because it’s easy to produce, easy to store (no refrigeration required) and — at a cost of $60 for a two-month regimen — relatively inexpensive to purchase.

Nutriset’s general manager, Isabelle Lescanne, stopped by the NewsHour recently to talk with Ray Suarez about Plumpy’nut and other products in the works to help prevent malnutrition, along with the controversy over Plumpy’nut’s patent that restricts wide-scale production of the power-packed paste in North America and parts of Europe:

But even without products, behavioral changes and education in basic dietary needs can help combat malnutrition, Lapping continued. For example, teaching mothers to breastfeed their children exclusively until they are 6 months old will prevent the risk of introducing contaminated water into their young developing bodies and will help develop their own immune response.

Rather than just focusing on the mothers, aid organizations urge the inclusion of the whole community, including husbands, fathers, mothers-in-law and religious leaders — anyone who can “really influence the ability of a mother to practice these good behaviors,” said Lapping.

The issue of chronic malnutrition got a boost at the G-8 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy, where member nations issued a Joint Statement on Global Food Security.

Of the $22 billion pledged for food security at the summit, 3 percent was earmarked for nutrition and of that 1 percent was delivered, said Lapping. Save the Children would like to see the L’Aquila pledge extended and the amount for malnutrition increased to 15 percent. The World Bank estimated that $10 billion per year is needed to address chronic malnutrition, she added.

“There is in fact this hidden crisis and there’s a problem that if we don’t act now, within 15 years we’ll see another half-billion children affected by chronic malnutrition that can be prevented,” she said.

Watch the NewsHour’s latest report in the series “Food for 9 Billion,” which explores the issue of food security and how some poor fishing families in the Philippines are embracing birth control to ease pressure on over-fished reefs:

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