Poor Nutrition Kills 5.6 Million Children a Year Worldwide

Poor nutrition contributes to the deaths of some 5.6 million children every year and the world has fallen far short in efforts to reduce hunger by half before 2015, the U.N. Children's Fund said Tuesday.

The finding, announced in a UNICEF report, was the latest evidence the United Nations is not on pace to meet the Millennium Development Goals, a series of targets set out in 2000 to spur development and reduce poverty and hunger worldwide.

In its report, UNICEF said one of every four children under age 5, including 146 million children in the developing world, is underweight.

"At our current pace, we will not meet the promise of the Millennium Development Goals," UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman said. "I think that frankly, we need a sense of urgency about all of the (goals). We know what needs to be done. We know how to make progress."

The report defines"undernutrition" as the combination of hunger and repeated infectious diseases. It includes being underweight, too short, too thin and lacking in vitamins and minerals.

The most troublesome area in the world is South Asia, where 46 percent of children are underweight. India, Bangladesh and Pakistan account for half of the world's underweight children even though they have only 30 percent of the world's population of children under 5.

"Children in this region live in an almost constant state of emergency," Veneman said.

Veneman also said that poor nutrition, particularly the lack of iodine, is diminishing the brainpower of children worldwide, sometimes by several IQ points.

The report was another reminder of how much work must still be done to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Last year, the top HIV/ AIDS official said it was no longer realistic to hope the world will meet its goal of halting and reversing the spread of AIDS by 2015.

And last week, UNESCO said that the targets for universal primary school education was probably now out of reach, in part because of massive teacher shortages.

According to the UNICEF report card, only one in three children is breast-fed in the first six months of life, meaning they are deprived of crucial nutrients that stimulate their immune systems and protect them from respiratory infections.

Veneman and Catherine Bertini, chair of the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition, who helped unveil the report, said undernutrition must be combatted by a host of measures: sanitation, children's education, security, and awareness among adults, for example.

"The mother has to have enough food in order to produce enough milk in order to breast feed, but she has to know that she should breast feed," Bertini said. "That's an education issue."

The Middle East and North Africa were the only regions where poor nutrition rates have actually increased since 1990. That's primarily because of poor nutrition in Iraq, Sudan and Yemen, the report said.

China has been one success story, the report said. According to UNICEF data, China has reduced its number of underweight children by half, the main reason that numbers in the East Asia/Pacific region have dropped from 25 percent to 15 percent.