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Good data crucial for tracking child nutrition

It is crucial to invest in data, former UN chief Kofi Annan on Wednesday said in response to the release of more detailed data that tracks global progress on child nutrition.

Each pixel on the maps reflects the state of child nutrition in a 5km x 5km area on the continent. Policy makers can use this data instead of generalised national averages. Image: Nature International Journal of Science

‘Mapping child growth failure in Africa between 2000 and 2015’ was compiled by University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. It tracked changes in child nutrition indicators such as the prevalence of stunting and acute malnutrition in children across Africa over a decade and a half in relation to the UN's 2030 sustainable development goals.

The maps published along with Zimmerman and Millear’s data will allow decision-makers in the health sector to make better plans to address child undernourishment.

The Sustainable Development Goals are an extension of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals that remained unattained by many poor countries. Annan was UN chief when signatories to the international body committed to the goals.

“The first goal – to cut extreme poverty and hunger in half by 2015 – was especially important to me, because it was crucial to achieving all the others. It was also controversial: experts thought it was impossible to achieve,” Annan said.

Aaron Osgood-Zimmerman and Anoushka Millear, the report’s authors, say there is uneven progress among African countries. According to them nearly all African countries have an improving nutrition record for children under five years.

They key indicators for child nutrition are stunting, wasting (acute malnutrition) and being underweight.

“If current rates of progress are sustained, many areas of Africa will meet the World Health Organization Global Targets for 2025 to improve maternal, infant and young child nutrition, but high levels of growth failure will persist across the Sahel [region].”

Unlike national or regional averages, the report gives a local-level account of the variables essential to child growth.

Child nutrition, food security and conflict

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned that although much evidence points to improvement, since 2014 there has been a rise in the number of undernourished people.

In 2016 an estimated 815 million people were undernourished globally.

It’s State of Food Security and Nutrition 2017 report FAO says: “The worrisome trend in undernourishment is, however, not yet reflected in nutritional outcomes. Evidence on various forms of malnutrition points to continuous decreases in the prevalence of stunting among children, as reflected in global and regional averages.”

In South Sudan where there is civil strife even more people are exposed to food insecurity. In the coming rainy season an estimated 7 million people will be stranded in villages with limited access to food and healthcare..

On Tuesday Serge Tissot, FAO’s representative in South Sudan, said the food insecurity situation is extremely fragile. Tissot was referring to the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report for the country which describes the severity of the food emergency.

“We are close to seeing another famine. The projections are stark. If we ignore them, we'll be faced with a growing tragedy,” said Tissot.

Tissot said if farmers receive support to resume their livelihoods the looming danger could be averted.

IPC assessment for the period between September and January says there was a reprieve over the post-harvest dry season. However, the situation is expected to deteriorate in the period between May and July.

Annan said countries like Burkina Faso and Senegal who have collected data on key nutritional indicators are reaping the rewards through informed policies.

“Countries that make nutrition a political priority are seeing results,” said Annan.

He cited the drop in Senegal’s severe stunting rate by nearly one-third between 2011 and 2015, after the Prime Minister’s office established the Cellule de Lutte contre la Malnutrition, a coordinating body tasked with reducing undernutrition.

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