Sound nutrition for children is an unmet human right

Experts gathered at the 2005 World Food Prize International Symposium to address the dual global challenges of malnutrition and obesity. The event marked the first time that this symposium focused on nutrition, rather than agriculture or food systems. Patrick Webb, academic dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, who organized the scientific symposium, spoke on "Child Malnutrition: Trends, Successes and Challenges" on behalf of the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition.

Webb states that nutrition must be seen as a key fundamental in the development debate, rather than an outcome measure of economic or agricultural growth. Nutrition underpins the success or failure in meeting all of the Millennium Development Goals, he notes.

The three largest nutrition crises in the world today are in West Africa, Niger and Ethiopia and, contrary to popular perception, they are not the result of conflict or natural disaster, he reports. Webb contends that all must be addressed in the development process, as must the growing nutrition problem in Malawi. "Roughly 78% of the children who are wasted, severely wasted, in the world are found in three countries: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. …not conflict zones, not famine zones. This reflects a failure of development policy. … We have to challenge the invisibility of malnutrition," Webb continues. "Terms like 'forgotten emergencies' and 'hidden hunger' speak volumes about the invisibility of the problem."

Webb paints a picture of nutrition concerns around the world by stating that undernutrition is associated with roughly half of premature child deaths. "It's crucially important to understand that nutrition and the treatment of malnutrition is in itself one of the key elements of resolving deaths."

"We are making progress, but there are still major problems," Webb says. In order to succeed in fighting malnutrition, Webb believes that intervention programs need to target processes instead of problems and must be included in the development debate. "Programs must address all aspects of malnutrition including wasting, stunting, micronutrients, and obesity. Furthermore, industry should protect investments against shocks, and countries must legislate empowerment."

Public health nutrition professionals have faced many persistent challenges when addressing malnutrition. These problems include creating interventions to reach mothers during early pregnancy and children under the age of two, promoting exclusive breastfeeding as a means of improving nutrition, addressing the problem of iron deficiency anemia, preventing obesity, and resolving malnutrition in the countries most at need where capacity is weakest and funding is negligible.

"We need to ensure that actions are mutually reinforced. It's not just reducing poverty; it's not just growing more food. Tackling underweight among children requires policies, programs and actions to do precisely that. We need appropriate action in all areas."

"Good nutrition, sound nutrition – it's not just a good idea, it's a right," challenges Webb, the former chief of nutrition for the UN World Food Programme. "It's a human right. And it's as yet an unmet right."

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Webb, Patrick. 2005 World Food Prize International Symposium: The Dual Challenges of Malnutrition and Obesity. October 13-14, 2005. "Session I: International Perspectives – UN Standing Committee on Nutrition."


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