Simple, effective ways to save children's lives

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 October, 2011, 12:00am

When the United Nations declares a famine, the world, rightly, snaps to attention. But after the immediate crisis recedes from public attention, the primary cause of the tragedy remains. Those now suffering from famine in Somalia have already suffered greatly from hunger and malnutrition.

As many as 200 million children under the age of five around the world are malnourished. According to a new World Vision report on children's health, more than 7,500 children under the age of five die every day as a result of a lack of nutrition. That's almost three million a year.

And when malnutrition doesn't kill, it causes lasting and devastating health problems.

World leaders have agreed, through the Millennium Development Goals, to reduce child mortality rates by two-thirds by 2015, and considerable progress has been made. The resources and knowledge exist; what is needed is a concerted effort to bridge the gap between what we know needs to be done and the delivery of life-saving programmes to families and communities.

Investment in nutrition in the first 1,000 days, from pregnancy to the age of two, is critical to a child's development.

To tackle the problem, education and health services must be provided at the family and community level. Too many are unaware that babies up to six months of age require nothing more than breast milk; it provides all the nutrition they need. Yet, fewer than 40 per cent of babies in the developing world are exclusively breastfed.

A World Vision programme in India boosted vitamin A provision for children from 3 per cent to 100 per cent. Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness and kills almost 500,000 children a year, yet vitamin A can be provided to 80 per cent of children in developing countries for only US$1.20 per child per year.

If the problem is widespread but the solutions are known and cost-effective, why has more progress not been made?

Donors are reluctant to fund programming that requires long-term investment. Most budgets are earmarked for programmes that last one to three years. We need commitments of five to 10 years.

The way in which a programme is delivered is as important as what is delivered. Most health planning tends to occur at the national and district levels without determining the family's actual needs. A greater emphasis on family and community care, and a focus on increasing and equipping community health workers, is key to ensuring a greater uptake of nutrition services. Any national policy must be transmitted effectively through every government level to support those most in need.

Natalie Waugh is a global campaigner and communications adviser at World Vision International


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