Insufficient progress has been made in most developing countries to meet the United Nations' target of halving the proportion of children who suffer from hunger by 2015 compared with 1990 levels, according to a systematic analysis of data on children's height and weight, published today in the Lancet. Although the nutritional status of children under five has improved overall since 1985, one in five infants and children in developing countries is still moderately or severely underweight, amounting to an estimated 110 million children worldwide. Another 148 million are mildly underweight.
The UN set the target as part of its Millennium Development Goals. This new analysis, led by Professor Majid Ezzati from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, estimates that while 61 out of the 141 developing countries studied are likely to meet this target, the developing world as a whole has less than a 5% chance of succeeding. Progress has been uneven between regions, with Asia and Latin America making the strongest improvements and sub-Saharan Africa falling behind.
Because nutrition has a strong effect on children's growth, nutritional status in children can be assessed using scores based on their height and weight relative to their age, called height-for-age and weight-for-age Z scores (HAZ and WAZ).
Researchers from Imperial College London, the World Health Organisation and universities in the US compiled HAZ and WAZ data from national surveys and other sources, and used statistical methods to estimate average Z scores and the prevalence of undernutrition (defined as insufficient food intake and absorption) for entire countries.
The results show that:
This new study includes estimates of all levels of malnutrition, unlike previous analyses, which excluded children who were mildly malnourished. The statistics suggest that in most countries, the improvements are due to population-wide improvements in nutrition, rather than interventions targeting high-risk children.
Professor Majid Ezzati said: "Our analysis shows that the developing world as a whole has made considerable progress towards reducing child malnutrition, but there are still far too many children who don't receive sufficient nutritious foods or who lose nutrients due to repeated sickness. Severe challenges lie ahead.
"There is evidence that child nutrition is best improved through equitable economic growth, investment in policies that help smallholder farmers and increase agricultural productivity, and primary care and food programmes targeted at the poor. We mustn't allow the global economic crisis and rising food prices to cause inequalities to increase, or cut back on investments in nutrition and healthcare."
The study was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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Notes to editors
1. Reference: GA Stevens et al. 'Trends in mild, moderate, and severe stunting and underweight, and progress towards MDG 1 in 141 developing countries: a systematic analysis of population representative data.' The Lancet, 5 July 2012.
2. About Imperial College London
Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.
Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable sources of energy and address security challenges.
In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK's first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible.
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