Malnutrition affects 1 in 4 children worldwide, causes 2 million deaths

FILE - In this Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 file photo, children line up to receive a meal at a food distribution center for those displaced by last year's famine or by conflict, in Mogadishu, Somalia. A new report by Save the Children released Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2011 says that despite advances against hunger around the world, chronic childhood malnutrition remains largely overlooked and almost a half billion children are at risk of permanent damage over the next 15 years. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)
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somalia, malnourished, malnutrition, children
In this Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 file photo, children line up to receive a meal at a food distribution center for those displaced by last year's famine or by conflict, in Mogadishu, Somalia.
AP

(AP) Malnutrition causes deaths of five children around the world per minute, according to a report released Wednesday. And almost half a billion children are at risk for permanent damage over the next 15 years, according to report.

The Save the Children report found the deaths of 2 million children each year could be prevented if malnutrition were better addressed.

Chronic malnutrition is a largely hidden crisis, the report says, even though it affects one in four children worldwide. Global hunger has seen a big decline over the last two decades, but the 2011 Global Hunger Index found that six countries have higher rates of hunger today than two decades ago. Five of those countries are in Africa. The other is North Korea.

The 2011 Global Hunger Index said that Congo, Burundi, Comoros, Swaziland and Ivory Coast have higher degrees of hunger today than in 1990. Kuwait, Turkey, Malaysia and Mexico have made the biggest gains against hunger.

Many Asian countries have made strides against hunger because of an explicit focus on reducing chronic malnutrition, Karin Lapping, a senior director of nutrition for Save the Children said. But according to Lapping, many African countries have not made that same commitment and have fallen victims to predictable cycles of drought and famine.

Chronic hunger leaves children vulnerable to starvation when food crises hit, but also leaves them vulnerable to death by diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria even in better times.

"It also likely causes permanent damage to their bodies and brains," said Tanya Weinberg, a Save the Children spokeswoman.

What makes Asia more successful than Africa? In countries like Bangladesh, "they have a national nutrition program," Lapping said. "We haven't seen that to be the case in many nations in Africa."

Ethiopia is one exception, she said, because of successful nutrition programs. But, she said, in many other regions "progress has been undercut by cyclical emergencies like what we're seeing now in the Sahel," a belt across northern Africa that experiencing a food crisis. Lapping said many African countries need greater political commitments from their governments and more external aid.

Malnutrition numbers in Africa are startling. The report said that nearly two in five - 60 million - children on the continent are stunted.

The British government estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died during a famine in Somalia last year. Most of those killed were children. Save the Children estimates 450 million children will be affected by 2025 if action is not taken.

According to the report, malnutrition must be made more visible so that governments are forced to act, that more health care workers are needed and that governments must help small-scale farmers improve their yields.