Malnutrition rises in Africa despite global decline

A woman weighs her malnourished child
A woman weighs her malnourished child at a clinic Copyright: UN Photo/Albert González Farran, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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  • Report finds stunting to have decreased by a quarter globally from 2000 to 2018
  • But it rose in all sub-regions of Sub-Saharan Africa in part due to poor diets
  • Expert calls for the need to prioritise tackling malnutrition in Africa

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[NAIROBI] Stunting – a key indicator for malnutrition – has increased in Africa since 2000 despite declining by a quarter worldwide, according to a UNICEF report.
Brian Keeley, the editor-in-chief of the UNICEF report says that malnutrition risks lowering children’s economic prospects, and a better child nutrition would sustainably improve the region’s socio-economic development. For example, every dollar spent on nutrition in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life results in an average benefit of US$45.
According to the report, major causes of malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa include poverty, rising cost of living, and globalisation, which have led to overdependence on staples such as grains and tubers at the expense of nutrient-rich foods including fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs and dairy.
The report released this month (15 October) shows that from 2000 to 2018 the number of children under five with stunting increased by 1.4 million in Eastern and Southern Africa and by 6.5 million in West and Central Africa. 

“While the number of stunted children has fallen worldwide since 2000, it has risen in every region of Africa.”

Brian Keeley, UNICEF

To arrive at the report’s findings, a team of international experts used data sources such as workshops with mothers in 18 countries including Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria, and nationally representative demographic and health surveys.
“While the number of stunted children have fallen worldwide since 2000, it has risen in every region of Africa,” explains Keele. “Other forms of malnutrition, such as iron and vitamin A deficiencies affect children’s growth and development, and these are widespread in Africa”.

The report says that malnourished children have poor cognitive development, leading to low educational outcomes and half of annual deaths of children aged under five.
“Investing in nutrition for children and young people is a cornerstone investment if the world is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030,” explains the report, adding that malnutrition-related diseases will increase healthcare costs, cause socioeconomic losses and lower the region’s gross domestic product.
Patricia Joy Mpaata, a consultant paediatrician at The Nairobi Hospital in Kenya, tells SciDev.Net that inadequate diet and underlying diseases contribute to increasing number of malnourished children in Sub-Saharan Africa.
“Management of some cases becomes difficult because some parents opt out of well-baby check-ups when their babies turn nine months although they should continue till the children are five years old,” she explains.

Mpaata recommends health education for parents during well baby clinics.
Keeley adds that the report raises the demand for improving the supply of healthy foods and   building healthy food environments.
He calls on African countries to prioritise the fight against all forms of malnutrition by substantially improving children’s diets. 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.