Undernutrition is one of the world’s most serious but least addressed public health challenges. Its human and economic costs are enormous, falling hardest on the very poor and on women and children.
In developing countries, nearly one-third of children are underweight or stunted (low height for age). More than 160 million children worldwide are stunted in their growth and in their potential to contribute to their country’s growth. Undernutrition contributes to one-third of all child deaths and increased frequency, severity, and duration of infectious disease, such as diarrhea, respiratory infections and malaria.
Undernourished children are more likely to die in the first few years of life. And if they survive, they have lower educational and income potential. For example, children who are deficient in iodine and essential micronutrients have on average 13 fewer IQ points than those who are iodine-sufficient. Similarly, stunted children start school later, learn less in school, and are more likely to drop out of school.
Globally, undernutrition is more common when household income is low, and is associated, within households, with chronic food shortage, diets lacking in diversity, high rates of infectious diseases and inappropriate infant feeding and care due to lack of knowledge. Recent global food and financial crises have worsened undernutrition in many regions.
Those who experience undernutrition between conception and 24 months of age have a higher risk of lifelong physical and mental disability, and are often not able to make a full contribution to the social and economic development of their households, communities and nations when they become adults. Thus, the economic costs of undernutrition, in terms of lost national productivity and economic growth, are significant—ranging from 2 to 3% of GDP in some countries.
Last Updated: Mar 30, 2015