The study is one of a series published ahead of the Nutrition for Growth summit in London (8 June), where rich countries have secured commitments of up to US$4.15 billion to tackle malnutrition, including through making scientific knowledge and evidence available to help farmers grow nutritious and resilient crops.
Some of the funds will go towards the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition launched at the summit by the UK government and chaired by John Beddington, former UK chief scientific adviser, and John Kufuor, former president of Ghana.
The panel will be hosted by the London International Development Centre and it will review research evidence and provide global leadership for investments and policies in agriculture that support nutrition and help eradicate hunger.
Malnutrition is the cause of 3.1 million deaths each year in children under five years old, accounting for almost half of all child mortality. Yet, many deaths could be prevented if existing nutrition schemes are scaled-up, according to the series of papers on maternal and child nutrition in The Lancet.
"This is quite remarkable given the limited set of interventions we have," said Zulfiqar Bhutta, chair of the Division of Women and Child Health at Aga Khan University, Pakistan, who led the study on nutrition and investment.
Nutritional interventions include treating severe malnutrition with high-nutrient foods, promoting breastfeeding and providing micronutrient supplements — such as vitamin A and zinc — for mothers and children.
By scaling up ten existing interventions to reach 90 per cent of people in the 34 countries with the highest malnutrition rates — primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-East Asia — 900,000 deaths of children under five could be prevented each year, Bhutta's study finds.
And this could be achieved with an annual investment of US$9.6 billion.
The researchers believe that more than half of the funds could be provided by India and Indonesia, with other smaller countries making financial contributions and the remaining US$3–4 billion coming from external donors.
"This is affordable compared with the gains of saving almost a million lives," says Bhutta. "The potential benefits to the affected countries in terms of improved productivity and reduced healthcare costs are substantial."
The series of papers reinforce the view that the first 1,000 days of life — from conception throughout pregnancy and the first two years of childhood — are a critical period for nutrition interventions.
But the researchers also highlight the importance of nutrition before conception. They recommend community-based approaches to ensure that women of reproductive age are getting the right nutrients when they conceive.
Poor nutrition during pregnancy and early childhood has resulted in 165 million cases each year of stunted growth in under-fives worldwide and 50 million cases of severe weight loss, or 'wasting'. The researchers believe that 20 per cent of cases of stunted growth and more than 60 per cent of cases of wasting could be prevented if nutritional interventions are scaled up.
Children with stunted growth have higher mortality rates, increased risk of cognitive deficiency and are more likely to become obese and develop obesity-related diseases such as diabetes later on in life.
The study group emphasises the importance of maintaining a global commitment to nutrition.
At the launch event for the series of papers, Lawrence Haddad, a study author based at the Institute of Development Studies, United Kingdom, said: "Let's not wait for political will: let's will our politicians to act".
Robert Black, of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, United States, who led the series of papers, said: "Countries will not be able to break out of poverty or sustain economic advances when so much of their population is unable to achieve the nutritional security that is needed for a healthy and productive life."
Link to The Lancet series