The future of poorly nourished children

August 31, 2015


An infant at his medical checkup, which is essential during the first months of life. Chimborazo Health Center, Ecuador. 

Photo: Paul Salazar / World Bank

Chronic malnutrition affects the growth of more than seven million children in Latin America and the Caribbean. What will happen to them when they reach adulthood?

The importance of good nutrition is recognized worldwide. Many people around the world make a daily habit of eating healthy, nutritious foods. The members of this group, most of which are more highly educated young people and adults, are constantly analyzing their diets and incorporating higher quality foods to improve aspects of their daily lives, from increasing their energy levels to enhancing their capacity for concentration and productivity.

Although a good diet is crucial throughout our lives, the brain develops very little after early childhood. Good nutrition has a crucial effect during the first 1,000 days of life. By the time we reach school age, our brains are 80% developed.

Impact of poor nutrition

Unfortunately, more than seven million children under age five still suffer from chronic malnutrition in Latin America, according to the World Bank. In the region and the world, child malnutrition has a series of negative consequences, including a higher mortality rate, poor development of cognitive, social and emotional skills, poor academic performance and limited productivity during adulthood. This process contributes to the inter-generational transmission of poverty and inequality in low income families.

A video illustrates how the first 1,000 days of life can determine whether an individual’s mind will illuminate like a 25 watt bulb or a 200 watt bulb, and what factors, such as chronic malnutrition, the lack of quality health and education services and time to play, abuse and abandonment irreversibly affect human development. Sadly, if a child has not developed his physical, cognitive and socioemotional capacities during the first years of life, he will never be able to do so.

Chronic malnutrition continues to be a leading obstacle to development in a few countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. When malnourished children grow up in an unfavorable environment, they often struggle in school and are more likely to drop out. These children often become impulsive youth and then disorganized adults. They may lack initiative, be combative and have difficulty holding down a steady job.

Activities to overcome chronic malnutrition

Investing in maternal and child nutrition makes economic sense. The Copenhagen Consensus 2012 found that each dollar spent reducing chronic malnutrition has at least a US$ 30 payoff in terms of education and health benefits.

Moreover, according to World Food Program estimates, the annual cost of fighting malnutrition in all children under 5 years of age in the region amounts to US$ 2.05 billion, yet the cost of not fighting it would be between US$ 104 billion and US$ 174 billion (owing to child mortality, productivity loss caused by growth delay and losses due to chronic illnesses, among other causes).

Several Latin American countries face a similar paradox: despite producing a variety of nutritional foods, they are affected by high rates of malnutrition. Fortunately, this situation is starting to change. In Ecuador, for example, the project Creciendo con nuestros guaguas (Growing with our babies) is working to eliminate chronic malnutrition in children under five. The project works with parents and the community to improve children’s diets.

With support from a specialized survey, the project team created a database of information on mothers and their educational-communication preferences for messages on overcoming malnutrition in the country. With this information, the project has sent over 100,000 personalized cellphone text messages to parents. These messages include checkup reminders and key information on their children’s growth and diet.

Additionally, with the creation of the album “My first five years,” parents of more than 10,000 families can now follow their children’s day-to-day development. This album serves to monitor simple, easily understood targets on early childhood growth and development.

Nelson Gutiérrez, a senior social protection expert at the World Bank, says that “the main problem was the limited capacity to transmit a clear, simple message on the factors contributing to chronic malnutrition. One of the most important activities was the family affection journal. This helped raise parents’ knowledge on their children’s growth.”

While much remains to be done to eradicate poverty, investing in the nutrition of the youngest members of society is undoubtedly one of the most important advances in the region.