By Davis Buyondo
A recent data analysis by Save the Children, a global non-profit organization, has brought attention to the increasing occurrence of child stunting on a global scale.
According to this analysis, it has been unveiled that if the current patterns continue, approximately one child is poised to be born every second within the next seven years, putting them at risk of stunting, a condition that can result in enduring health and developmental challenges throughout their lives.
Child stunting is a form of malnutrition characterised by impaired growth and development in early childhood due to inadequate nutrition, repeated infections, and poor caregiving practices.
Stunted children often experience lifelong consequences, including cognitive deficits, reduced physical capacity, and increased vulnerability to diseases.
The analysis further warns that if concerted efforts are not made to combat this issue, nearly 194 million children born between 2023 and 2030 will face the risk of stunting.
However, Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to be the most severely affected region, with an estimated 86 million cases of stunting among children born during this period. South Asia closely follows, with 67 million cases.
Other regions facing significant challenges include Eastern Asia and the Pacific (22 million cases), the Middle East and North Africa (9.6 million cases), and Latin and Central America (6.7 million cases). This distribution underscores the global nature of the issue, requiring a coordinated response from the international community.
The data analysis also highlights a strong link between extreme poverty and child stunting. More than half of all projected cases of stunting are expected to come from the poorest 40% of households globally. This stark correlation emphasizes the importance of addressing poverty and food insecurity as integral parts of the strategy to combat child stunting.
Challenges and Unmet Goals
While there has been a steady decline in child stunting since 2000, progress has fallen short of internationally agreed-upon targets. The global community had aimed to reduce stunting to 100 million cases by 2025 and eliminate all forms of malnutrition by 2030. However, without accelerated efforts, these goals appear increasingly out of reach.
According to Nana Ndeda, Head of Advocacy and Policy for Hunger at Save the Children, the silent crisis of stunting speaks volumes about how much work is still needed to address the global hunger crisis to reach the SDGs by 2030.
Although immediate funding is critical to saving lives now, Ndeda said there is a need for longer-term solutions and changes to systems that will stop this crisis from recurring.
Reactive humanitarian funding is too slow, unreliable, costly, and ultimately ineffective to tackle the complex crises of today. Furthermore, world leaders must invest in early warning systems and disaster preparedness to better prepare for future shocks and mitigate the impacts before it is too late.
The organisation (Save the Children) further called on world leaders at the UNGA to address the root causes of acute food and nutrition insecurity. Only by putting an end to global conflict, tackling the climate crisis and global inequality, and building more resilient health, nutrition, and social protection systems that are less vulnerable to shocks like COVID-19, will we be able to ensure the same warnings are not ringing out again in the coming years.
The child rights organization is also calling for greater collaboration, dialogue, and investment across sectors with, and leadership by, local communities, to bolster response planning and implementation, as well as our abilities to act early and prevent predictable shocks from turning into crises.
Save the Children is also calling on world leaders to scale up low-cost interventions to prevent and treat malnutrition, community-based treatment for acute malnutrition, support and protect breastfeeding, and invest in community and primary-level healthcare.
Uganda’s Initiative to Address Malnutrition
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNICEF), over 100,000 cases of children aged 6-59 months, and 12,000 cases of pregnant and lactating women were projected to suffer from acute malnutrition between February 2022 and January 2023.
However, the Uganda Government has a plan to combat stunted growth by addressing malnutrition challenges. It has laid out an ambitious long-term development plan known as “Vision 2040,” with the overarching goal of transforming Uganda from a predominantly peasant society into a modern and prosperous country within three decades.
This vision encompasses a comprehensive approach to address pressing issues like poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition within the nation. However, there exists a certain level of uncertainty regarding how this grand transformation will impact the nutritional well-being of households.
An integral component of Vision 2040 is the transition of Uganda’s agricultural systems from traditional home gardens to more industrialised farming practices, a shift that has the potential to exert adverse effects on household nutrition.
In-depth analyses, drawing from the most reliable scientific literature and insights from experts, suggest that malnutrition at the household level is predominantly influenced by factors related to access to and the demand for nutritious foods, rather than being solely contingent upon the overall food supply.
In Kyotera district, Bethlehem Health Community Hospital in Nabigasa sub-county opened a special unit to offer free services to children and elderly persons suffering from malnutrition. The unit has a capacity of 150 beds for the patients and over 50 mattresses for the caretakers.
The initiative by Dr Emmanuel Ssentongo Lugwana, the Hospital Director, aims to admit, feed, and treat malnourished patients from the different districts in the greater Masaka Region. Lugwana explained that the malnutrition rate is high, especially among poor households that can hardly access healthy diets and nutritious foods.
The hospital, according to the director, receives between 20 and 30 outpatients (OPDs) every day while 20 are currently admitted. “At this unit, all services are free with the support of our friends from the USA. After treating the patients, we make follow-up visits (homecare) for six months and also sensitize parents or caretakers on what to do to prevent the condition,” he said.
According to him, malnutrition is mainly caused by deficiencies in iron, iodine, vitamin A, and zinc. In his explanation, the signs and symptoms of malnutrition always depend on the nutritional deficiency. The common signs range from stunted growth of a child, underweight, dehydrated, pale and rough skin, as well as a protruding stomach, especially among children.
Hospital records indicate the most affected are children below 5 years and elderly people. Malnourished children, said Lugwana, hardly concentrate in class which affects their performance in class and childhood survival.
“We are looking at working closely with Community Development Officers (CDOs) and probation officers to make pregnant and lactating mothers as well as caregivers aware of the need for good feeding and childcare practices,” he explained.
Silent Killer, Its Consequences
According to Dr. Lugwana, malnourished children are in many ways at high risk of death, especially with severe dehydration. It weakens the body’s immune system, making the patients easily susceptible to such infections as malaria, Tuberculosis, bacterial infection, and organ failure.
The patients are treated with therapeutic foods including energy and protein foods such as flavoured porridge, milk, Irish, fish, cowpeas, posho, beans, ground nuts, yams matooke, and sweet potatoes.
“The presence of 8 fish ponds allows us to give patients fish at least three times a week. We also give enough food to parents and caregivers that can take them for some two months. That’s the only way to fight malnutrition in the region,” Lugwana said.