Africa, South Asia Face Highest Levels of Child Stunting, Says New GNR
Updated at 1513203268
Photo Credit: IFPRI/2010

According to the recently released 2017 Global Nutrition Report, the world continues to face a serious threat from multiple forms of malnutrition, including undernutrition, overnutrition, and micronutrient deficiency.

The report finds around the world, 155 million children suffer from stunting and 52 million suffer from wasting. At the same time, 41 million children are overweight and 2 billion adults are overweight or obese. In addition, two billion people lack critical micronutrients like vitamin A and iron, which can lead to health problems like anemia. These challenges also often go hand-in-hand; the report finds that 88 percent of the 140 countries for which it collected data face a serious burden in either two or three major indicators of malnutrition: childhood stunting, anemia among women of reproductive age, and overweight in adult women.

Famine and the threat of famine have exacerbated these challenges recently. In 2017, four countries (Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan) faced famine or near-famine conditions, while two others (Kenya and Ethiopia) have experienced severe drought that has reduced food supplies and driven many people into hunger. These situations have placed an estimated 38 million people in severe food insecurity in 2017.

Progress on all of these challenges varies at the regional and country level. For example, while rates of child stunting have fallen globally since 1990, Africa south of the Sahara has actually seen an increase in the number of children stunted in recent decades (despite a decrease in the overall prevalence of child stunting). The number of children suffering from stunting rose from 47 million in 1990 to 59 million in 2016. South Asia also continues to be challenged by child malnutrition – in 2016, over half of the children wasted and two out of five of the children stunted in the world lived in South Asia. Fifteen percent of children under the age of five (27.6 million) in South Asia suffered from wasting in 2016. Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), while it still has progress to make, has lower rates of stunting (6 million children in 2016) and less than 5 percent of children under the age of five in the region suffering from wasting in 2016.

While a significant number of children continue to experience undernutrition, 40.6 million children around the world were overweight in 2016. This highlights the complexity of battling multiple forms of malnutrition. Overnutrition rates also vary by region and country. In 2016, 20 million children were overweight in Asia as a whole, 10 million in Africa, and 4 million in LAC.

Overnutrition is also a problem for adults worldwide. In 2014, 6 percent of men and 16 percent of women in Africa were obese; In Asia as a whole, 6 percent of men and 9 percent of women were obese, and in LAC, 19 percent of men and 27 percent of women were obese.. The report also highlights that rates of adult overweight and obesity are rising in almost every country, making this a challenge for high-, middle-, and low-income countries alike. Prevalence of diabetes and other non-communicable, diet-related diseases are also on the rise globally and pose a significant global public health threat.

Anemia among women of reproductive age ranges from 5-19 percent in some areas of LAC to above 40 percent in India and some areas of Africa; the report points out that this is an important indicator not only because it reflects the health of adult women but also because anemia among women can affect the health and long-term physical and cognitive development of those women’s children. Poor maternal and child health and nutrition can have long-term consequences for a country’s education system, labor force, and economic development.

The report emphasizes that important data gaps still exist that need to be filled in order to properly track and monitor progress on nutrition goals. These gaps apply not only to nutrition indicators like stunting and obesity but also to the coverage of important national and regional nutrition interventions. For example, the report looks at 12 interventions related to maternal and child nutrition (such as early and exclusive breastfeeding and iron supplementation) and finds that the coverage of these programs ranges widely. For interventions aimed at minimum meal frequency for children under the age of two, coverage rates ranged from around 90 percent for Vietnam and Colombia to around 15 percent for South Sudan. The reach of exclusive breastfeeding interventions were similarly widely varied, with coverage of almost 90 percent in Rwanda and almost zero percent in Chad. However, many countries do not have adequate data with which to track these coverage rates, making it difficult to truly capture how nutrition interventions are working and whether they are reaching vulnerable populations.

The report also highlights the need for a coordinated, multi-pronged approach to address all of these forms of malnutrition. It calls for using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to address not only malnutrition itself but also the root causes. This will require a shift in global perspective to acknowledge the links between malnutrition and broader development goals, such as the elimination of poverty, the promotion of gender equality and education, the protection of natural resources and the environment, the establishment of sustainable food systems, and the improvement of crucial infrastructure.

Finally, spending on nutrition by both national governments and international agencies and donors is dramatically lacking, the report finds. Further efforts need to be made by both governments and donors to examine how investments can be made to tackle multiple forms of malnutrition simultaneously.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI