Nearly half of the children under five years of age in India have stunted growth mainly because of zinc, iron and Vitamin A deficiency, according to a new study.
Anaemia affects 79 per cent of children in the lowest wealth quintile and 64 per cent in the highest wealth quintile, the analytical study by the Lancet’s series on Maternal and Child Under nutrition said.
While a host of issues, lack of or no breastfeeding, contributed to these severe conditions, deficiency of Zinc or Vitamin A are the major factors, according to Dr Robert Black of the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who is one of the compilers of the series.
In India, for example, around 30-40 per cent of the children have Zinc and Vitamin A deficiency, Dr M K Bhan, Secretary Department of Biotechnology said.
The reason for this can be found in the diet patterns in India with many people being vegetarians.
Black said apart from boosting nutrition levels, Zinc has been found to be a major help in tackling Diarrhoea. “If given till two weeks, then we can prevent recurrence of the disease in a particular child also”.
Bhan said in most Indian households, it was more a problem of knowledge than poverty and thus the problem could be solved if a publicity campaign was launched.
A major fallout of the under nutrition till two years of age is that these very children develop lifestyle diseases like diabetes and heart problems, he said.
Malnutrition rates among Indian children are among the world’s highest and cause stunted growth in about half of children under five years, researchers quoting their study in the Lancet medical journal said on Tuesday.
These children account for one-third of the global population of stunted children, Robert Black, the lead author of a series of papers published in the Lancet this year, said in New Delhi on Tuesday.
“Undernourished children are more likely to become short adults and to give birth to smaller babies,” Black, who is from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said.
“Stunting in the first two years leads to irreversible damage into adult life,” he said.
There is much debate in India over the country’s level of poverty, with many critics saying that indices like malnutrition remained far too high for a trillion-dollar economy that has been booming in recent years.
Undernourished children also face developmental problems that will deter them socially and economically as they grow older, the researchers said.
They said proper breastfeeding for the first two years of a child’s life and adequate vitamin supplements in food could help in reversing the problem.
Indian government officials said they were worried by the impact.
“We need to do more as a country because of the long-term consequences of under nourishment and we are not doing enough now,” M.K. Bhan, secretary of the department of biotechnology said.
In India, distribution of subsidised food for poor people through the government has miserably failed, officials say, with nearly one-third or even half of the food meant for poorest of the poor siphoned off by corrupt officials.
“We need to give food security to people,” Bhan said.
Researchers said women, especially pregnant women, were not getting enough nourishment.
“One-third of all boys and girls are undernourished because the mother is undernourished,” added Purnima Menon of the International Food Policy Research Institute.
The Lancet has warned that children would suffer irreversible damage in adult life unless proper nutritional interventions are delivered before the age of two.
Launching a five-part series of research papers on maternal and child undernutrition, the international medical journal said the prevalence of child undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies in India was among the highest in the world.
But the challenge is not India’s alone. Worldwide, more than 3.5 million mothers and children under five die avoidable deaths each year due to the underlying cause of undernutrition. And millions are permanently disabled by the physical and mental effects of poor dietary intake in the earliest months of life, according to Robert Black, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who has authored the series.
According to data analysed in the series, over 51 per cent of children in India under five are stunted. This is a third (34 per cent) of the global total of stunted children. Anaemia affects 79 per cent of children in the lowest economic strata and 64 per cent in the better-off families. The research mirrors trends found in the National Family Health Survey-3. That benchmark survey indicated some improvements in the nutritional status of young children in several States, though overall there were widespread nutritional deficiencies and little change in the percentage of children who were underweight.
The Lancet papers quantify the prevalence of maternal and child undernutrition and consider the short-term consequences in terms of deaths and disease burden, as measured by Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) and long-term educational and economic effects and association with adult chronic diseases.
The research shows that 178 million children under five — the vast majority of whom live in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-Central Asia — have been left stunted. An estimated 55 million suffer from wasting, 19 million of whom are affected by acute malnutrition.
Stunting, severe wasting and low birth-weight contribute to an estimated 2.2 million deaths annually, representing 21 per cent of all causes of death for children under five.
Among micronutrient deficiencies, Vitamin A and zinc are the greatest contributors to the disease burden because of their direct effects on child health.
The paper estimates the potential benefits of implementing effective and applicable health and nutrition interventions. Of the 45 reviewed interventions, breastfeeding promotion, appropriate complementary feeding, supplementation with Vitamin A and zinc and appropriate management of severe acute malnutrition showed the most promise of reducing child deaths and future disease burden.