Childhood obesity and wasting require urgent action

A large international group of scientists analysed the percentage of children suffering from malnutrition across the globe. They recommend acting soon, or the United Nations’ target to end hunger and malnourishment cannot be achieved.

We may believe that today people on our planet live longer, are getting healthier and more prosperous. To an extent it is true, but there are still considerable disparities between the rich, middle-income, and poor countries. It is especially frightful when we look at the health of the children. For example, malnutrition remains a significant issue in many parts of the world, and it can lead to obesity as well as wasting. A large group of scientists from across the globe, including Sechenov University members, prepared a major report that looks at the rates of childhood obesity and wasting in 105 countries, covering the period from 2000 to 2017. The findings and the proposals to policymakers have been published in Nature Medicine, one of the most prestigious journals in the field.

The researchers performed a statistical analysis of the data available from governmental offices. The procedure included model-based geostatistics to generate estimates of children (below the age of 5) that were overweight or had a wasting syndrome, in low- and middle-income countries. They were selected for the study based on their socio-demographic index that summarises education level, fertility, and poverty.

The study shows that the global trend in early childhood wasting is declining. However, there are areas where the situation has little progress, for example, the Sahel and South Asia. At the same time, childhood obesity has increased within the 2000–2017 period, in particular in tropical South America and in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa.

Although wasting has decreased in low- and middle-income countries between 2000 and 2017 — from 8.4% (approx. 62.3 million children) to 6.4% (approx. 58.3 million) — it is still above the World Health Organisation’s Global Nutrition Target of < 5% by 2025 and unlikely to reach the recommended level by then. The percentage of overweight children has increased in this period from 5.2% (approx. 30 million) to 6.0% (approx. 55.5 million). Interestingly, there are areas that experience a double burden of malnutrition, with a high prevalence of both obesity and wasting. Such locations include Indonesia, Thailand, south-eastern China, Botswana, Cameroon, and central Nigeria.

The authors note that, apart from the economic growth that leads to the increase in obesity among the population, there is a growing recognition that complex interactions between societal, environmental, psychological, economic, and food industry factors are involved as well. They hope that more data can be made available by some governments to help identify the areas that require additional attention. In many parts of the world, immediate action is needed to implement the relevant sustainability policies and programmes within the framework of the United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition.

The study, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, includes contributions by Sechenov University (Department of Health Care and Public Health, Department of Information and Internet Technologies, and Department of Epidemiology and Evidence-Based Medicine).

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