Poor diets destroying children’s health, warns UNICEF

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An alarmingly high number of children under five years of age are suffering from the physical consequences of poor diets and a food system that is failing them, UNICEF warned today in a new report on children and nutrition.

The State of the World’s Children 2019 report finds that in 2018, at least 1 in 3 children under five globally, were either stunted, wasted or overweight, reflecting poor growth, and putting them at risk of increased infections, weak learning skills, low immunity and, in many cases, death. In addition, 1 in 2 children – or 340 million globally- suffered from deficiencies in vitamins and minerals such as iron and iodine, further undermining their growth.  

Also, in South Sudan the numbers are alarming. The prevalence of acute malnutrition among children has increased from 13 per cent in 2018 to 16 per cent in 2019, which is above the 15 per cent emergency threshold. An estimated 1.3 million children under five will suffer from acute malnutrition in 2020. This calls for a paradigm shift in addressing malnutrition by shifting from focusing on treatment to prioritizing prevention- reducing the need for treatment.

“Every child in need of treatment for malnutrition is a failure, a failure in preventing the suffering,” said UNICEF Representative in South Sudan Dr Mohamed Ag Ayoya. “Preventing malnutrition is an essential part of realizing every child’s right to health. Young children can suffer lifelong consequences and in worst case die if malnutrition is not addressed timely during the first crucial years in life.”

The challenge is not only securing enough food, but ensuring children are eating the right things and get the nutrients they need to develop to their full potential. Only 7 per cent of children under five in South Sudan has an adequate diet. Furthermore, common diseases such as malaria must be prevented and treated, as they are often the starting point for malnutrition. Only 50 per cent of households have access to clean water and only 10 per cent access to improved sanitation. Ensuring clean water and addressing poor sanitation and hygiene practices are also essential to preventing diarrheal diseases causing malnutrition.

“Malnutrition is complex and must be fought on all fronts simultaneously. Together with partners and donors we have become exceptionally good at treating children for acute malnutrition, now we must up our game and become even better at preventing it,” said Dr Ayoya.

To strengthen diverse diets and healthy food for children, UNICEF and partners are promoting age-appropriate feeding practices for children, including cooking demonstrations with locally available food. UNICEF is working with sister agencies such as FAO to improve resilience by providing families with seeds and livestock preventing future shocks. Hygiene promotion, improving access to clean water and sanitation and providing health services are also contributing to prevention of malnutrition.

UNICEF is issuing an urgent appeal to help children in South Sudan to grow healthily and calls on:

the Government of South Sudan to produce a multisectoral strategic plan for nutrition with joint targets, pooled resources, multisectoral coordination, an accountability framework and joint monitoring and evaluation system.

donors to support prevention activities as well as treatment of malnutrition and advocate for an enabling environment for a multisectoral nutrition strategy;

non-government organizations to support the implementation of the shift in addressing malnutrition by prioritizing prevention of malnutrition at community level in addition to treatment of malnutrition at facility level.

communities and parents to ensure their children have a healthy diet.

“With good food and nutrition, we can set a child up for success, and yet we are losing ground in the fight for healthy diets,” said Executive Director of UNICEF, Henrietta Fore at the global launch of The State of the World’s Children Report in London “This is not a battle we can win on our own. We need governments, the private sector and civil society to prioritize child nutrition and work together to address the causes of unhealthy eating in all its forms.”

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of UNICEF South Sudan.

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