Maternal and child undernutrition is the cause of 3.5 million deaths, 35% of the disease burden in the under-fives and 11% of the total global disease burden — according to a new study by Robert Black and team in The Lancet (go here). Vitamins, minerals and a daily feed of breast milk could prevent a third of these deaths (lack of Vitamin A alone accounts for 600,000 deaths every year).
Improved nutrition in early life also makes for more productive adults — enabling them to earn higher wages (see this paper by John Hoddinott et al.). They can then afford to better feed their children. So, reducing maternal and child malnutrition can help break the transmission of poverty across the generations (see Kate Bird’s recent CPRC overview).
These numbers makes a powerful case for investing more in child (and mother) nutrition to defeat chronic poverty. But what to do exactly? The 2004 Copenhagen Consensus decided that providing micronutrients had the best cost-benefit ratio of all nutrition interventions. And this intervention was No.2 in the experts ranking of 17 possible ways to improve the world (control of HIV/AIDS was No.1).
Although malnutrition kills about 2 million under-fives every year, the world spends only $250 million on nutrition aid — according to UNICEF’s Bruce Cogill. This compares with the $3 billion spent on HIV/AIDS, which kills about 380,000 children (under 15) (Report here). It’s hard to make these resource allocation decisions, but clearly donors need to step up nutrition support — and be creative in raising the funds (increase taxes on foods associated with obesity in the rich world? Its one possibility. Generates a ‘double dividend’: more money for hungry kids, and less diabetes and heart disease in the North).
Those working with the micro-finance revolution will be pleased to know that women’s access to micro-credit improves the nutrition of young girls (see this UNU-WIDER paper by Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis and Gautam Hazarika). It helps women earn an income to feed their families, especially girls who often get less priority when times are hard. So that’s another tick in the box of micro-finance.
So far so good. But these great interventions are now pushing against a countervailing force: the recent and rapid run-up in world food prices. What is this doing to child nutrition? Let us know.