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One-Third of African Children Are Undernourished, Says UN

A study by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has revealed that almost one-third of children in southern and eastern Africa are undernourished and that little progress is being made on addressing the problem. UNICEF says the situation in many countries is actually deteriorating.

In this, its fourth report card on nutrition, UNICEF says nearly one-third of all children under the age of five in Eastern and Southern Africa are dangerously underweight and are losing out on essential nutrition. The report blames the situation on poverty, conflict, drought, and food crises in the region and points to the HIV/AIDS pandemic as a major contributing factor.

The report called, Progress for Children, says only one country in the region, Botswana, is on track to achieve the first Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.

UNICEF's senior nutritional advisor Saba Mebrahtu says malnutrition has a number of negative effects on developing countries. "Malnutrition can contribute to as high as 60 percent directly or indirectly to child mortality,” says Mebrahtu. “Another is the effect it has on cognitive development, malnutrition can lead to a loss of 10-12 IQ (Intelligence Quotient) points in children, so this means their school performance will be affected, and then also later on in life their economic productivity will not be as high. This will lead in the long term to higher poverty levels due to decreased economic productivity."

Mebrahtu says Botswana, while on track, also has problems. "There was a diarrhea outbreak because of E. coli and cryptosporydium, about 470 children have died because of that outbreak,” she explained. “The majority of the children that died because of the diarrhea were not breast fed and they were undernourished. What this is showing is the importance of breast feeding where access to safe water is low and hygienic practices are not optimum."

The report says mineral and vitamin supplements are essential to addressing the problem in some of the poorest communities. Iodine deficiencies are being controlled in seven countries through the compulsory sale of iodized salt.

But Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition Chairman Jay Naidoo warns that food fortification and supplements will not solve all the problems. "Fortification is a cost effective way of dealing with micro-nutrient deficiency, but it still requires people to have disposable income to buy the food,” he said. “So where we are dealing with countries with large parts of the population that are living in absolute poverty, it requires food aid, it requires us to change the way economic relations operate in the world particularly when it comes to trade."

Mebrahtu says UNICEF will continue to lobby governments, NGO's and the private sector to implement new food-supplement programs.