MANILA, Philippines – Children deserve to achieve their full growth potential. Sadly 1 in every 4 children under 5 years old will not – because of stunting.
Stunting is an anthropometric indicator that measures the height for age of children under 5 years old. Children whose height is two or more standard deviations below the average child growth standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO) are considered stunted.
Since many outside the field of health are not aware of the consequences of stunting, it is not often viewed as a public health issue, especially in countries where shortness in height seems to be the norm. Stunting is, however, an indication of severe malnutrition.
Maternal health before, during, and after pregnancy plays a crucial role in the development of the child and the effects of consistently poor nutrition can be perpetuated through generations. A stunted mother is more likely to give birth to a stunted child, and the cycle continues unless the proper interventions are given at the right time.
When a child is stunted, the effects don’t just reflect shortness in height. Stunting has grave consequences on cognitive development, overall health, and even socio-economic conditions that carry into adulthood.
A Consortium of Health Oriented Research in Transitioning Countries (COHORTS) study reviewed by The Maternal and Child Undernutrition Study Group shared evidence on the implications of stunting in adulthood. The study involved long-term follow up of children into late adolescence and early adulthood in 5 lower- and middle-income countries (Brazil, Guatemala, India, Philippines, and South Africa).
The results showed evidence that links stunting to low adult height, reduced lean body mass, less amount of schooling, lowered intellectual functioning, reduced earnings, and low birth weights of infants who were born to stunted mothers.
Another study in Guatemala conducted by the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama provides evidence that stunting leads to lower economic productivity and income. The study showed that Guatemalan men aged 26-42 who were taller as a result of receiving proper nutrition during their first two years of life were earning wages that were 46% higher than among men in a control village.
The results in these studies show that reducing stunting can help reduce the global burden of disease and boost economic development. A country with a high prevalence in stunting means that its future workforce will be underqualified and underperforming.
The World Health Assembly has set a target to reduce stunting in children under 5 by 40% by 2025. Preventive and timely nutrition interventions can help achieve this. (READ: Stunting prevention project launched in Malawi)
The key is to strike during the 1,000 day window of opportunity (from pregnancy to 2 years of age). It is a crucial time to meet a child’s nutritional needs because of the rapid pace of development. Lack of proper nutrition and care makes children at this age vulnerable to infections and disease. Once a stunted child reaches the age of 5, it is often impossible to reverse or treat the effects of stunting.
Raising awareness about stunting and promoting research and programs that target child and maternal nutrition can raise a child’s chances of reaching his or her full potential in life.
You can start by clicking on the infographic below to learn more about stunting.