Stunting, a little-reported, recognised or understood human tragedy, blights the lives of some 165 million children worldwide.
Stunted growth in the first months of a child's life means permanent stunted development of the brain and cognitive capacity, and usually condemns the sufferer to a lifetime cycle of poor nutrition, illness, poverty and inequity.
Stunting can even hamper the social and economic progress of countries. It cuts school performance, causing reductions in adult incomes, and increases the risk of certain diseases in adulthood. In 2011, it was estimated that more than one in every four children under the age of five in the developing world were stunted, an estimated 160 million.
Stunting is still highly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and is highest among low-income countries.
High stunting rates help explain why most United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have not been reached, notably on extreme poverty and hunger, child and maternal health, and combating HIV and Aids.
Under-nutrition contributes to one-third of child deaths and around one-fifth of maternal deaths. With less than 1,000 days before the deadline for MDGs, an accelerated effort must be made.
Attacking stunting is a huge, cost-effective development opportunity, though.
Expectant mothers need nutrients; newborn babies need breastfeeding, from the first hour after birth and for the next six months. Adequate solid foods should be introduced at the right time. Throughout, adequate health care, good hygiene and sanitation are vital. Poor sanitation and repeated bouts of diarrhoea cause stunting.
In 2008 and 2012, economists ranked priorities for confronting their top 10 global challenges. Stunting can also be a global opportunity, with a growing international response.
The Scaling Up Nutrition Movement, a major global initiative, is bringing much-needed investment in and focus on nutrition for children and women worldwide.
According to Unicef's new report on child and maternal nutrition, countries like Haiti markedly reduced stunting levels in recent years. More countries are enhancing nutrition programmes for children during the critical first 1,000 days and throughout children's lives.
Nobody should suffer the injustice of a lack of nutrition - especially when it is preventable. There can be no reason not to eradicate stunting.
Anthony Lake, executive director, Unicef, Tom Arnold, Scaling Up Nutrition MovementTopics: Child Development Malnutrition Nutrition Child Welfare Unicef