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Nutrition - Child and adolescent health

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Only nine countries on the continent are on track to reach MDG Target 1 of halving hunger and malnutrition by 2015. Africa has high levels of maternal and child undernutrition and poor feeding practices. Today, 25% of children under 5 years of age in Africa are underweight[1]. More than one third of children under five in Africa are stunted.1 And despite some recent progress, only 31% of infants in the Region are exclusively breastfed for their first six months. Complementary feeding frequently begins too early or too late, and foods are often nutritionally inadequate and unsafe.

A lack of certain key micronutrients can also damage the health of the mother and child, and increase the risk of maternal and child mortality. For example, anaemia affects 42% of pregnant women globally, ranging from 24% in the Americas to 57% in Africa, raising the risk of premature birth, low birth weight, haemorrhage and sepsis[2]. Zinc deficiency in children is associated with increased risk of pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria. However, the national prevalence of zinc is high in most countries of sub-Saharan Africa[3]. Vitamin A supplementation to children is implemented by 72% of countries, while salt iodization is implemented by 61%.2

The nutritional challenges faced by most African countries are well known. They include meeting the energy needs and strengthening the immune systems of people with communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis; increasing household food security through improved food availability and affordability; increasing dietary intake across the life cycle through appropriate feeding practices and debunking of food taboos; and addressing the high consumption of sugars and fats that contribute to diet-related disorders.

WHO is currently collaborating with Member States on the development of a comprehensive plan on infant and young child nutrition. This is a critical component of a global multisectoral nutrition framework to address the challenges outlined above.

  1. Briefing for the Day of the African Child Reaching Millennium Development Goal 4: What progress has Africa made and what more needs to be done? UNICEF, New York 2009
  2. de Benoist B, McLean E, Egli I, and Cogswell M (eds), 2008. Worldwide prevalence of anaemia 1993–2005: WHO global database on anaemia, World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 06 April 2010
  3. Black, RE et al., 2008. Maternal and child undernutrition: Global and regional exposures and health consequences. Lancet, 371:243-260