Levels and trends in child malnutrition: UNICEF/WHO/World Bank Group Joint Child Malnutrition Estimates, Key findings of the 2018 edition

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The ultimate aim is for all children to be free of malnutrition in all its forms

Good nutrition allows children to survive, grow, develop, learn, play, participate and contribute – while malnutrition robs children of their futures and leaves young lives hanging in the balance.

Stunting is the devastating result of poor nutrition in-utero and early childhood. Children suffering from stunting may never attain their full possible height and their brains may never develop to their full cognitive potential. Globally, approximately 151 million children under 5 suffer from stunting. These children begin their lives at a marked disadvantage: they face learning difficulties in school, earn less as adults, and face barriers to participation in their communities.

Wasting in children is the life-threatening result of poor nutrient intake and/or disease. Children suffering from wasting have weakened immunity, are susceptible to long term developmental delays, and face an increased risk of death, particularly when wasting is severe. These children require urgent feeding, treatment and care to survive. In 2017, nearly 51 million children under 5 were wasted and 16 million were severely wasted.

There is also an emerging face of malnutrition: childhood overweight and obesity. There are now nearly 38 million overweight children globally, an increase of 8 million since 2000. The emergence of overweight and obesity has been shaped, at least in part, by industry marketing and greater access to processed foods, along with lower levels of physical activity.

While malnutrition can manifest in multiple ways, the path to prevention is virtually identical: adequate maternal nutrition before and during pregnancy and lactation; optimal breastfeeding in the first two years of life; nutritious, diverse and safe foods in early childhood; and a healthy environment, including access to basic health, water, hygiene and sanitation services and opportunities for safe physical activity. These key ingredients can deliver a world where children are free from all forms of malnutrition.

Despite this opportunity, the UNICEF, WHO, World Bank global and regional child malnutrition estimates reveal that we are still far from a world without malnutrition. The joint estimates, published in May 2018, cover indicators of stunting, wasting, severe wasting and overweight among children under 5, and reveal insufficient progress to reach the World Health Assembly targets set for 2025 and the Sustainable Development Goals set for 2030.

Improving children’s nutrition requires effective and sustained multi-sectoral nutrition programming over the long term, and many countries are moving in the right direction. Regular data collection is critical to monitor and analyse country, regional and global progress going forward.