Improving Children’s Health Status

By Constance Ndeleko

Undernutrition continues to affect tens of millions of children. Its presence is visible in the stunted bodies of children deprived of adequate nutrition in the first 1,000 days and beyond.

The Lancet suggest that without timely action, the global prevalence of child wasting could rise by a shocking 14·3%. With an estimated 47 million children younger than 5 years affected by wasting globally before the COVID-19 pandemic. This translates 6·7 million children with wasting during the first 12 months of the pandemic—80% of them in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia—and more than 10 000 additional child deaths per month during this same period.

The COVID-19 pandemic is undermining nutrition across the world, particularly in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs). The worst consequences are borne by young children. Some of the strategies to respond to COVID-19—including physical distancing, school closures, trade restrictions, and country lockdowns—are impacting food systems by disrupting the production, transportation, and sale of nutritious, fresh, and affordable foods, forcing millions of families to rely on nutrient-poor alternatives.


Malnutrition forces children to carry the burden of stunting for the rest of their lives growth and perhaps some may never realize their full physical and intellectual potential.

Undernutrition forces children’s bodies to waste when they are hit by circumstances like food shortage, poor feeding practices and infection, often compounded by poverty, humanitarian crises and conflict, deprive
them of adequate nutrition and, in far too many cases, result in death.

Deficiencies of essential vitamins and minerals – hidden hunger – rob children of their vitality at every stage of life and undermine the health and well-being of children, young people and mothers.


Recent global estimates by UNICEF and partners indicate that at least 340 million children under 5 (one in two) suffer from hidden hunger. The number girls and boys with obesity between the ages of 5 and 19 have soared since the mid-1970s, rising by between 10- and 12-fold globally.

Overweight and obesity, long thought of as conditions of the wealthy, are now increasingly a condition of the poor, reflecting the greater availability of ‘cheap calories’ from fatty and sugary foods around the world.

More children and young people are surviving, but far too few are thriving. Far too many children and young people are eating too little healthy food and too much unhealthy food.


Understanding how food systems work is essential to improving our diets. Poor diets have lifelong impacts on children’s physical growth and brain development. That is why they must be at the heart of our thinking about food systems.

Good nutrition can break the intergenerational cycles through which
malnutrition perpetuates poverty, and poverty perpetuates malnutrition.
Children who are well nourished have a firm foundation from which they
can develop to their full potential. And when children do that, societies and
economies develop better, too.

Children have unique nutritional needs and can suffer unique harm from malnutrition. Putting children’s needs first is key to ensuring that every child and young person has the nutrition they need to get the
best start in life.


How to improve chances of malnutrition

  • Accurate and timely data is needed to understand malnutrition, take coordinated, evidence-based action, and hold all actors accountable.
  • A systems approach to children’s nutrition can help ensure that children and families have access to healthy diets and that children receive the nutrition services they need to develop to their full potential
  • Food systems are diverse, and so are solutions. But all food production and consumption must become sustainable if we are to protect children’s nutrition today and tomorrow.
  • When healthy options are affordable, convenient, and desirable, parents and caregivers make better food choices for children.
  • Investments are needed to improve maternal and child nutrition through pregnancy, infancy, and early childhood by protecting breastfeeding and preventing the inappropriate marketing of infant formula in the context of COVID-19; securing children and women’s access to nutritious and diverse foods; and providing accurate information on infant feeding to caregivers.
  • Early detection and treatment of child wasting need to be re-activated and scaled up while maintaining and expanding prevention and other nutrition services, including vitamin A supplementation for children,

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