Data gaps make malnutrition too easy to ignore

screening for malnutrition
Copyright: Nyani Quarmyne / Panos

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  • A lack of data is keeping hidden hunger out of the public eye
  • Countries with huge data gaps include Afghanistan, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea and Somalia
  • Policymakers need to be made aware of the scale of the problem

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[STUTTGART] The significant data gap on malnutrition is making it hard to plan and monitor interventions, a conference has heard.

Scientific information on what is sometimes called ‘hidden hunger’ — a lack of important nutrients — is sparse and scattered unevenly across the globe, according to experts at the second International Congress on Hidden Hunger, organised by the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany (3-5 March). This reduces commitment from both public and private entities to solve the problem, as there is no clear picture of the prevalence and scope of malnutrition, the conference heard.

The conference looked at the Global Hunger Index (GHI), which was introduced in 2006 by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to monitor nutrition. However, there was no available data for many countries, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Georgia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Somalia. This prevents the calculation of GHI scores and the publication of such data for policymaking in these countries, speakers said.

“Until nutrition data collection and availability are revolutionised, nutrition data cannot be democratised,”

Klaus von Grebmer, IFPRI

“Until nutrition data collection and availability are revolutionised, nutrition data cannot be democratised,” said Klaus von Grebmer, a research fellow at IFPRI. “And without the democratisation of nutrition data, it remains too easy to ignore malnutrition.”

Defined as a chronic lack of micronutrients — especially vitamin A, iron, zinc and iodine — hidden hunger is a major public health problem. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, two billion people are affected globally, mostly in developing countries, and 165 million children suffer from stunted growth because of malnutrition.

The conference heard of another problem: malnutrition’s effects are not immediately visible, meaning they often do not get addressed until later in life when they cannot be reversed.

 “If you have malaria, you go to the hospital and get medication. But with malnutrition, problems become manifest in the future, while they should be tackled now,” said Janice Desire Busingye, a nutritionist at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

To make hidden hunger visible, communication of the scale of the problem and possible solutions must be more aggressive and persuasive, the conference heard. Positioning nutrition security as central to the post-2015 agenda and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals would help to translate existing high-level commitment into global goals and firm action, participants said.

However, Grebner said that the onus also lies with nutritionists to become more involved in policymaking and to lobby harder for their evidence and advice to be heard. “Nutritionists are, in my perception, missing in the public debate,” he said. “For a politician, reality happens only once per day, in the evening news. So, to get nutrition on the agenda of policymakers, we have to get nutrition in the news.”

Link to FAO report on malnutrition

Link to 2014 Global Hunger Index