Childhood stunting effects a massive percentage of the world’s youth. UNICEF estimates that some 39% of children in the developing world are stunted. 40% of children in sub-Saharan Africa are stunted and in East and South Asia, estimates climb as high as 50% of children. The numbers tally in at 209 million stunted children in the developing world.
Childhood stunting is a condition that is defined as height for age below the fifth percentile on a reference growth curve. If, within a given population, substantially more than 5% of an identified child population have heights that are lower than the curve, then it is likely that said population would have a higher-than-expected prevalence of stunting. It measures the nutritional status of children. It is an important indicator of the prevalence of malnutrition or other nutrition-related disorders among an identified population in a given region or area.
Aside from inadequate nutrition, there are several other causes of childhood stunting. These include: chronic or recurrent infections, intestinal parasites, low birth weight, and in rare cases, extreme psychosocial stress without nutritional deficiencies. Several of these factors are influenced by each other. Low birth weight is correlated with nutritional deficiencies, and inadequate nutrition is correlated to chronic or recurrent infections.
One of the serious consequences of stunting is particularly impaired cognitive development. When a child has inadequate access to food, their body conserves energy by first limiting social activity and cognitive development in the form of apathetic and incurious children. These children may not develop the capacity to adequately learn or play. Then the child’s body will limit the energy available for growth.
Fortunately, studies have found that improvement in diet after age two can restore a child to near-normal mental development. Conversely, malnutrition after age two can be just as damaging as it is before age two. However, it is important to note that once stunting is established, it typically becomes permanent.
The reasons stated above serve as important reminders of why foreign aid and programs aimed at eliminating extreme malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies are so vital. The impact of new legislation focusing on increasing USAID and other foreign aid is substantial. Stunting can be seriously limited through the introduction of increased access to food security in the developing world. Knowledge of the facts surrounding stunting is also an important step in working to combat and eliminate childhood stunting worldwide.
– Caitlin Zusy
Sources: UNICEF, Future of Children