On Tuesday, UNICEF released its State of the World’s Children report for 2019. The first UNICEF report in 20 years on child nutrition, it comes on the heels of the Global Hunger Index report released by the organisation Welthungerhilfe. The UNICEF report found that one in three children under the age of five years — around 200 million children worldwide — are either undernourished or overweight. And in India, every second child is affected by some form of malnutrition.
The report said 35% of Indian children suffer from stunting due to lack of nutrition, 17% suffer from wasting, 33% are underweight and 2% are overweight. According to government figures, stunting and wasting among children in the country has reduced by 3.7 per cent and the number of underweight children have reduced by 2.3 per cent from 2016 to 2018.
Among countries in South Asia, India fares the worst (54%) on prevalence of children under five who are either stunted, wasted or overweight. Afghanistan and Bangladesh follow at 49% and 46%, respectively. Sri Lanka and the Maldives are the better performing countries in the region, at 28% and 32%, respectively.
India also has the highest burden of deaths among children under five per year, with over 8 lakh deaths in 2018. It is followed by Nigeria, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, at 8.6 lakh, 4.09 lakh and 2.96 lakh deaths per year, respectively.
The report said “an alarmingly high number of children” are suffering the consequences of poor diets and a “food system that is failing them”. “Almost two in three children between six months and two years are not fed food that supports their rapidly growing bodies and brains. This puts them at risk of poor brain development, weal learning, low immunity, increased infections and in many cases, death,’’ it said.
UN officials said in India. poverty, urbanisation as well as climate change are some of the factors that are driving poor diet. Only 61% Indian children, adoloscents and mothers consume dairy products at least once a week, and only 40% of them consume fruit once a week. One in five children under age 5 has vitamin A deficiency, which is a severe health problem in 20 states. Every second woman in the country is anaemic, as are 40.5% children. One in ten children are pre-diabetic. Indian children are being diagnosed with adult diseases such as hypertension, chronic kidney disease and diabetes.
“In recent decades, our diet has dramatically changed because of both globalisation and urbanisation. India moved away from seasonal food as well as traditional food one hand and consumption of processed food has increased on the other. Obesity is spiralling out of control, not just in the developed nations but also in developing countries,’’ said Shariqua Yunus, Chief of Nutrition, World Food Programme.
Chief, Nutrition, UNICEF India, Arjan de Wagt said although poverty has not been eradicated entirely, India has progressed from extreme poverty, but access to nutrition is still a major challenge in the country. “Last week I visited Gujarat. At one of the schools I was visiting in a village, right next to this small school was a kiosk selling chips and sodas. I asked where fruit was sold, and they told me that at least 5-6 km away. So this is obviously a problem where unhealthy cheap processed food is so easily available. Many governments are now considering taxing products like sodas. On the other hand, I have never seen the mobilisation of such large numbers for any programme such as that being done for Poshan Abhiyan (National Nutrition Mission) launched by the government, or such financial commitment being made to such a programme. What the government needs to do is to ensure it is sustained,” de Wagt said.
— With inputs by Mehr Gill