A top United Nations official says the developing countries of Asia must take decisive steps to reduce malnutrition or lose much of their tremendous economic potential. The United Nations is co-hosting a conference on malnutrition this week in New Delhi.

Shiela Sisulu, deputy executive director of the United Nations' World Food Program, says malnutrition is a major barrier to increased economic success in Asia.

Ms. Sisulu is in New Delhi to co-host, with India, a conference on malnutrition among women and children in Asia. She says the problem is especially serious in such countries as India, Bangladesh and Cambodia, but is spread throughout the region.

"There are 500 million people [in Asia] who are chronically hungry, which means they are not getting enough food and by definition because they are not getting enough food they are not getting enough nutrients in their food," she said.

She says India has the potential to become an economic powerhouse in Asia. That means it will need a tremendous work force, and the greatest barrier to the evolution of a modern and skilled work force, she says, is malnourishment.

The United Nations says 83 percent of the women in India are anemic because of iron deficiency and 55 percent of the children are born underweight. In Bangladesh, 65 percent of the children are born underweight, and in Cambodia the figure is 50 percent.

Ms. Sisulu says the percentage of malnourished children in India and Bangladesh is higher than it is in sub-Saharan Africa.

She says a mother, the primary caregiver for young children, cannot bring up a child who can complete its education and achieve its full social and economic potential if the mother herself is weak.

She says there should be a concerted effort in Asia to fight malnutrition, and she believes India is ready to take the lead.

"The [Indian] government is very positive. The government is not only willing to work with us in India but also to work with us in the [whole] region," she said.

Ms. Sisulu says the World Food Program is working with the Indian government on the ways India can help other countries of the region to tackle the problem.