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Disadvantaged from birth, India’s silent problem

Health issues for many children may begin long before they are even born. As many as twenty percent of Indian children are born stunted according to data from UNICEF. Such revelations means that a significant proportion of the child population is born with a condition that is marked as a key risk factor not just for noncommunicable conditions in later life, but also leaves the child vulnerable to infectious disease. 

malnutrition 20948537 - poverty and hunger concept with a fork and knife on a broken asphalt road shaped as a dinner plate as a social problem of food shortage hardships caused by financial distress or natural disaster resulting in living poor on the streets as a health risk
The malnutrition burden in India is far from evenly shared between states, with significant variations between them in the prevalence of conditions like stunting and wasting.

Stunting among recently born babies is often the result of malnourishment in the mother. This situation is often spurred on by extreme poverty, an issue which is rife in India despite the country’s considerable economic expansion in recent years. 

Globally, four out of ten stunted children reside in south Asia. In India around 46 million children are stunted, with a further 25.5 million affected by wasting – a condition hallmarked by have low weight-to-height ratio.

According to recent figures by the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS), stunting affected 35 percent of children under five in India and wasting affected seventeen percent. 33 percent of children are underweight, with 35 percent of children aged five to nine years being underweight and ten percent being severely underweight.

By comparison, the prevalence of stunting and wasting stood at 39.3 percent and 15.7 percent respectively in 2017 – a lower figure for stunting compared to the CNNS, but higher for wasting. The data indicate that the situation is not being addressed as the national priority that its severity would warrant.

The issue of stunting, if left unaddressed, becomes life-long at an individual level. In addition to increasing the risk of an untold number of diseases, stunting can also severely impair a child’s mental development. This, in turn, can lead to poorer performance in school, leading to an increased risk of poverty in later life a situation that can cause malnutrition to become a recurring issue throughout their own lives and, indeed, their children’s lives.

The lack of skills resulting from loss of education due to stunting has led to 66 percent of the workforce in India earning less than it would otherwise have. Only Afghanistan (67 percent) and Bangladesh (73 percent) surpass India’s proportion of workers who were stunted as children.

Malnutrition in India is a situation that desperately needs to be addressed. Malnutrition was responsible for almost seventy percent of child deaths in India in 2017. Such a figure places malnutrition firmly into the top spot as India’s most prolific cause of infant mortality. Nutrition schemes have been implemented, but are largely a state-by-state matter. Given the scope of the issue, a country-wide child nutrition policy covering both expectant mothers and children could go a long way in addressing many of the issues the matter causes in later life.

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