|SCN News, Number 02 (UNSSCN, 1988, 12 p.)|
The first United Nations inter-agency report on the World Nutrition Situation was issued in December 1987, by the ACC/SCN. Trends in the numbers of underfed and malnourished people in developing countries are described, starting in the sixties and highlighting changes in the last five years, using indicators of population, food availability, child nutrition and mortality rates. Here are some of the main points.
In the 1970s there were improvements globally in nutrition. But since the early 80s, widespread economic recession and drought in Africa have reversed this trend. Contrasting trends in the different regions are shown in the map.
Food production per head has been falling in Africa since the early 70s, and the nutrition situation worsened dramatically with economic stress and droughts in the 1980s. Numbers of people underfed, children with clinical malnutrition, and infants dying, are increasing at an accelerating rate. Recent data from clinics in five African countries confirm seasonal malnutrition as widespread - even in years of good rainfall - and pinpoint the deterioration with drought and economic stress. Around 20 million children are chronically malnourished, and nearly 4 million die annually - equivalent to the total child population of a large European country dying each year.
In Latin America, a similar if less pronounced change has occurred, with a reversal of previously improving trends in the 1980s. This must be related to economic recession and the debt crisis. Some 1 million children die each year. In Latin America, recent hardship is shown by the rapid rise in the numbers of hours of labour needed for a household head just to feed his family rising to as much as 170 hours per month in some countries in 1983/4, for example.
Asia shows a more optimistic picture. Nutrition levels have risen steadily from the 1970s onward. Malnutrition remains higher here than elsewhere, but the percentage of children malnourished is falling, even though numbers still increase with rapid population growth. In one of the more encouraging findings, it appears that total numbers of children dying in South Asia may have peaked around 1980: never again need so many under-fives die as the nearly 6 million in 1980.
Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals are also shown to be very widespread, and availabilities are probably falling in Africa. Vitamin A deficiency is the largest single cause of the 40 million people estimated to be blind in the world. Even moderate vitamin A deficiency, it is now thought, contributes to child death and susceptibility to disease. Anaemia from iron deficiency affects nearly half the women of reproductive age in developing countries, and may have far-reaching effects on psychological function, and on cognitive development in children. Iodine deficiency - also very widespread, affecting at least 190 million people - causes mental retardation, in its most severe form leading to cretinism: there are at least 3 million cretins in the world. All these deficiencies are readily and cheaply preventible using existing technology, and UN-wide ten-year programmes to tackle vitamin A and iodine deficiencies have been launched.
The report highlights the fact that hunger and malnutrition remain probably the most widespread causes of human suffering in the world today. We now know more about the numbers affected, and the trends, from consistent information from several sources. Some of the results are optimistic - in Asia for example; but others provide a serious warning, especially for Africa, that the situation shows long-term deterioration, of which recurrent famines are only the most visible sign. Many more people are in severe and chronic need. [Source: First Report on the World Nutrition Situation, ACC/SCN November 1987]