Malnutrition fact sheet
MSF nutrition programmes
In 2009, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) medical teams treated 250,000 children suffering from acute malnutrition in 116 programmes in 34 countries, primarily with nutrient dense ready-to-use foods, which, while more expensive than foods currently provided by the food aid system, actually work to prevent and cure severe malnutrition – and these can be used on a very large scale. Currently, MSF is operating 120 nutrition programmes in 36 countries.
What is malnutrition?
Malnutrition, specifically undernutrition, is a serious medical condition marked by a deficiency of essential proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals in a diet. It is especially burdensome and dangerous for young, growing children. According to UNICEF, there are currently 195 million children under five years of age affected by malnutrition, of whom 90 per cent live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. At any moment, at least 20 million children suffer from the deadliest forms of severe acute malnutrition (SAM) and another 175 million are undernourished.
Malnutrition plays a significant role in mortality because the immune systems of malnourished children are less resistant to common diseases. In fact, malnutrition contributes to one-third of the eight million deaths of children under five years of age every year.
These are largely invisible children and invisible deaths, occurring in places we normally don’t hear about. It happens every year. The community and economic consequences are obvious. This is an ongoing medical emergency that requires urgent action.
Malnutrition is different from hunger
Malnutrition and hunger are sometimes confused. The principles of good childhood nutrition are well established: exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, then the introduction of an age-appropriate complementary diet.
To maintain healthy growth and development, infants and young children need energy furnished by high-quality protein such as milk, eggs and fish, essential fats and carbohydrates, as well as vitamins and minerals.
The critical window of opportunity
Most of the damage caused by malnutrition occurs in children before they reach their second birthday. This is the critical window of opportunity, when the quality of a child’s diet has a profound, sustained impact on his or her health, and on his or her physical and mental development.
Diets that do not provide the right blend of energy including high-quality protein, essential fats, and carbohydrates as well as vitamins and minerals can impair growth and development, increase the risk of death from common childhood illness, or result in life-long health consequences.
New strategies to address lack of access to nutritious foods for young children
In malnutrition hotspotssuch as South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, research shows that the cost of purchasing nutritious foods for children aged 6–30 months is prohibitive for most parents, making it virtually impossible for them to provide adequate nutrition.
A major constraint has been the lack of cost-effective strategies to deliver the many essential nutrients needed for healthy development in resource-limited areas.
Recent advances in nutrition science and nutrition programming create opportunities to enhance the effectiveness of malnutrition programs in the world’s most vulnerable regions.
Tackling childhood malnutrition head-oOn
Tested strategies to address malnutrition are effective and are showing promising results in many countries. Some, including Mexico, Thailand, and Brazil, have reduced early childhood malnutrition through direct nutrition programmes that ensure infants and young children from even the poorest families have access to quality foods, such as milk and eggs.
Through such programmes, substantial progress has been made towards freeing children from the consequences of malnutrition at an early age. At the same time there is growing political will in Asian and African countries to replicate successful programmes.
International food aid
The World Bank estimates that $12 billion a year is needed to scale up effective nutrition programmes to meet current needs. Only $350 million was spent on direct nutrition programmes in 2007.
There is not enough emphasis on the types of foods included in aid deliveries, in other words, the quality of food. Most current food aid programmes for developing countries rely almost exclusively on fortified cereals made of corn and soy blend (CSB), which may relieve a young child’s hunger, but do not provide proper nourishment.
The US is the world’s largest food aid donor. It produces and ships hundreds of thousands of tons of CSB and other fortified blended flours for use in nutrition programmes throughout the developing world, even though these foods are recognised as nutritionally substandard for infants and young children. CSB and other flours are not promoted in the US Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition safety net programme in the US, which provides vouchers to low-income young mothers for the purchase of nutritious foods like milk, fruits, eggs, etc… The US is sending food overseas to children that it would not feed to its own citizens. This double standard needs to end.
Better nutrient-rich alternatives exist and could be included in food aid distributions. International food aid donors must also support programmes that meet the minimal nutritional needs of infants and young children, and work with countries most affected by the crisis to put access quality foods at the center of efforts to tackle childhood malnutrition.