In 2019, 149 million children under the age of 5 around the world experienced stunted growth. Children that stunted growth affects are 33% less likely to evade generational poverty as adults. By continent, 36% of children in Africa under the age of 5 are malnourished. Around 40-45% of “all preventable child deaths” are due to undernutrition. In 2012, this meant that more than 6 million children died from stunted growth disorders.
Stunted Growth in Children
Malnutrition in the early stages of a child’s life causes stunted growth. Stunting correlates with impaired physical growth and cognitive development, a weakened immune system, higher mortality rates and overall poor health. Stunted growth is a chronic condition that appears within the first two years of a child’s life.
Children who experience stunting are more likely to be fatigued and less curious, which naturally lessens their psychosocial development. Additionally, they tend to face disciplinary challenges as well as possess less developed motor function and social skills. These challenges perpetuate the cycle of poverty, as stunted growth in children leads to higher dropout rates and a 22% reduced earning capacity in the workforce.
While the effects of stunted growth are largely irreversible, reducing malnutrition will lessen underdevelopment and other illnesses that stem from malnourishment. The World Health Organization (WHO) has plans in place to reduce the prevalence of this disease by 40% by the year 2025.
Malnutrition causes diminished cognitive function and psychosocial adversity in children by altering neurological function. This, in turn, leads to reduced income as adults. Dendrites are neurons that communicate with nerve cells and pass on signals in the brain. Malnutrition in young children decreases the density of dendrites in the brain and therefore reduces the number of neurons. This process negatively affects critical brain development such as memory formation, locomotor skills and other neurological functions, which are critical to healthy brain development.
Links to GDP Growth
According to the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, malnutrition drains the global economy of approximately $3.5 trillion per year from lost productivity. Individuals often experience a lack of brain development during the first years of their lives from undernourishment. They later suffer from diminished productive capacities in their livelihoods. The Global Panel reports that a 3% to 16% annual GDP loss results from malnutrition. Simply put, better-nourished children grow into more productive adults.
Policy Changes and Solutions
As with many public health problems worldwide, foreign aid investments may be a critical starting point for reducing malnutrition and stunted growth in children in poor regions. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that if the U.S. invested $1.2 billion per year in the global fight against malnutrition, the decrease in deaths and an increase in “future earnings” (GDP income and relative economic benefits) would generate $15.3 billion for the U.S. per year. This calculation represents a thirteen to one benefit-to-cost analysis.
An Ethical Approach
Much more than an economic incentive, there is a moral imperative to improve nutrition globally. Eliminating malnutrition would increase the overall health of populations. Poor communities that lack consistent access to nutritious food and healthcare would particularly feel this effect.
Research shows that, while the impaired cognitive state is not necessarily permanent and can improve incrementally, there typically remains overall “cognitive dysfunction” in stunted children in comparison to healthy children. The FAO’s recommendations include dietary supplements, food fortification (the addition of nutrients to food to increase the nutrient content) and biofortification (agricultural practices that incorporate DNA recombination to augment nutritional content in primary crops).
Along with FAO dietary solutions, the WHO has developed policy aims to reduce stunted growth in children by 2025. Its policies include collaboration between organizations such as Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN), which works to reduce global malnutrition and the health disorders that accompany malnourished children. SUN helps countries develop and implement government policies to improve nutrition during the critical period before a child’s second birthday. Through collective action efforts, SUN, WHO, governmental entities, the U.N. and individual stakeholders are joining forces to eliminate malnutrition.
– Nye Day
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