Malnutrition is rightfully described as “the silent emergency” for India’s children. Acute malnutrition is the biggest contributor to under-five mortality. And malnutrition not just affects children – it can also strike pregnant women. Undernourished mothers not only give birth to undernourished children, but are at a higher risk of perishing during or after the birth.
1. India: malnutrition by the numbers
According to the World Bank, India has one of the highest populations of children suffering from malnutrition in the world; one that is double the size of Sub-Saharan African countries. More than 38% Indian children aged 0 – 59 months are severely undernourished. Malnutrition often leads to stunting – a condition which hampers children’s physical and mental growth. India has almost 50 million children under the age of 5 who are moderately or severely stunted. Madhya Pradesh is the state with most malnourished children (60%) followed by Jharkhand (56.5%) and Bihar (55.9%). States like Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu also see their children suffering from stunted growth.
2. Stunted growth
Chronic undernutrition can lead to a condition called “stunting”. Numerically, it is calculated as the percentage of children below 60 months of age whose height is two or more standard deviations lower than the median for WHO Child Growth Standards. In India, this figure is as high as 48% due to high levels of malnutrition. Stunting can have devastating effects on children. It can drastically lower their mental capacity and physical growth and can lead to learning disabilities and increased risk of diabetes and hypertension in future.
3. Infant and child mortality
India’s heavy dependence on a carbohydrate-based diet also means that we show less interest to proteins and fat, essential for early child growth and proper development. Though access to toilets has been improving, nearly 50% of Indians still defecate in the open. This leads to young children picking up chronic infections which in turn can kill their appetite and induce malnutrition. Diseases like diarrhoea can also lead to rampant loss of nutrients and thus malnutrition. According to UNICEF, Diarrhoea kills 117,000 Indian children every year.
4. Maternal mortality
India suffers not just from poor child health but also poor maternal health. If the mother is not well, it compromises the baby’s chances of developing resistance to diseases and nutritional value of breast milk. Pregnant women in India offer suffer from poor BMIs, poor weight gain and many micronutrient deficiencies. High-risk pregnancies and young girls becoming mothers are also common in the country shooting up maternal mortality rate. Their children also have 50% fewer chances of survival and are generally less healthy. Anaemia is considered a major cause of mortality including deaths due to haemorrhage, infections and during surgeries.
India’s war on malnutrition will require immense capacity-building, but it has already yielded some tangible and inspiring milestones. There is a silver lining in the cloud. By the end of 2014, India had seen a dramatic fall in underweight and stunted children (from 48 % to 39 % (2005-6 and 2013-14). This translates to 14.5 million fewer stunted children. This is a monumental victory for India, which is home to the shortest kids in the world. Further, the number of infants below 6 months who are exclusively breastfed has risen 46 % to 72 %. A nation-wide Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC), showed a marked improvement in malnutrition. Donate to charity like Save the Children to provide food rehabilitation and sustained nutrition access to India’s most underprivileged children.