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Childhood Malnutrition Labeled a 'Neglected' Humanitarian Crisis

A major international aid organization says current nutrition programs do not adequately target childhood malnutrition, particularly in what the agency calls "high burden" areas such as Southeast Asia, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. From VOA's New York bureau, Mona Ghuneim has the story.

The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders says, despite global efforts that include billions of dollars in donated food aid every year, deficits in diet quality for young children are not being properly addressed.

Nutrition advisor to the group, Dr. Susan Shepherd, says severe malnutrition contributes to about five million deaths each year in children under the age of five and leaves millions more with lifelong complications. She says there are 20 million severely malnourished children around the world, and another 40 to 50 million others are in the early stages of the condition.

Dr. Shepherd says this is unacceptable, particularly when the medical community knows the problem and the solution.

"International food aid, including that sent from the U.S., does not have anything [in it] specifically for young infants and toddlers," said Dr. Shepherd. "Infants everywhere need the same energy-dense, nutrient-rich foods to stay healthy and to grow. They need milk, eggs, meat, fish."

Instead, the nutrition experts says current food aid for children consists largely of corn or wheat or soy-blended porridge, ingredients which can actually inhibit the absorption of essential minerals, such as zinc, and have no animal-source content.

Dr. Ron Waldman of Columbia University's School of Public Health in New York says there have been tremendous developments in the past few years in products that target severe malnutrition. One of them is a milk-fortified, peanut butter-like spread that is being used, albeit on a small scale, in countries like Chad, Niger and Bangladesh.

Dr. Waldman also works with the United States Agency for International Development. He says the global community must do more and must act in a way that benefits children, rather than governments and corporations.

"That is a problem that has been long and sorely neglected, especially now that we have so many new tools of tremendous efficacy," said Dr. Waldman. "We have been acting very frequently in our own best interests rather than in the best interests of those people who are amongst the poorest and most vulnerable in the world."

At a recent conference in New York, Columbia University health experts and representatives from the group Doctors Without Borders discussed ways to better tackle the crisis of childhood malnutrition.

Dr. Buddhima Lokuge says this is essentially a hidden crisis, because most malnourished children live in the poorest, most neglected parts of the world.

The manager of Doctors Without Borders' Access to Essential Medicines Campaign says these "malnutrition hotspots" will continue to spiral down and suffer from economic, social and personal loss if the global community does not address the problem of diet quality.

As long as quantity rather than quality continues to be at the forefront of international aid to young children, Dr. Lokuge says chronic, annual illnesses and complications from malnutrition will abound.

"Ultimately, there is no way that the poorest mothers in the world will secure the nutrition that their children need to have good educational outcomes, to have long-term health, unless as an international-national community we provide safety nets and protections for those children," said Dr. Lokuge.

Dr. Lokuge says strategies must be implemented and adapted to local conditions, but the international community has the means and resources to tackle the problem. And just as important, he says, the global community has something the malnourished children lack - a voice.

He uses the HIV/AIDS epidemic as an example where protests and public awareness made great strides in controlling a serious crisis.

"If we can get the same voice and advocacy and outcry that the HIV activists managed to generate for HIV - a disease which actually costs much much more to keep people on treatment [than malnutrition] - it just goes to show you that it is not so much sustainability, but political voice [that matters]," he said.

The doctors agree that there is no one solution to overcoming malnutrition, but that there must be political will and a commitment to act. Without anyone to speak out on behalf of suffering children, they say, the price of doing nothing may be very costly.