WHO report highlights rise in malnutrition, obesity in Africa, decries data gaps

AFRICA – A newly released nutrition report by the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Africa has revealed that under-nutrition is still persistent in the Continent while the number of stunted children has increased.

The Africa Nutrition Report, which was launched in Abidjan, Ivory Coast also indicates that a growing number of children under five years old are overweight.

The Report describes the current status in relation to six global nutrition targets that member states in the continent have committed to achieve by 2025, and underscores findings from the recently released Global Nutrition Report.

The global nutrition targets call for a 40 percent reduction in the number of children under-five who are stunted and a 50 percent reduction of anaemia in women of reproductive age.

The targets also call for a 30 percent reduction in low birth weight, no increase in childhood overweight, increasing the rate of exclusive breastfeeding to at least 50 percent and reducing wasting to less than 5 percent.

The Report, the first of its kind by WHO in the African region uses data from national surveys of 47 countries dating from 2000, as well as joint malnutrition estimates published annually by UNICEF, WHO and the World Bank.

It also raises the alarm on critical gaps in the nutrition data available across the countries in Africa.

For 19 out of the 47 countries, the ‘current’ nutrition data reflects the situation in 2012 or earlier.

In two countries, the most recent surveys were done before 2000.

“The numbers and trends highlighted in the report show that we need to work harder to avoid the long-term consequences of malnutrition and poor health on our children’s future prosperity, including the increased risk of diet-related non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension,” said WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti.

Dr. Moeti also added that the Report underscores the need to work harder on collecting and using accurate data given that nutrition information available for most countries is more than five years old, and the use of routine data for nutrition monitoring is extremely limited.

The Report points out that while the prevalence of stunting decreased between 2000 and 2016, the absolute numbers of stunted children actually increased from 50.4 million in 2000 to 58.5 million in 2016.

Stunting, or impaired growth and development has devastating long-term consequences on children and later on, adults, according to WHO, including poor school performance, low adult wages, lost productivity and increased risk of nutrition-related chronic diseases.

According to Dr Felicitas Zawaira, Director of WHO-AFRO’s Family and Reproductive Health, malnutrition, beyond its obvious physical and development impacts also harms economic growth: worldwide, between 3 to 16 percent of GDP is lost annually due to stunting alone.

Dr. Adelheid Onyango, WHO Africa Adviser for Nutrition and the lead author of the report, says while overweight rates in children might still be low, the proportion and numbers are increasing in all age groups in the continent.

Among adults for example, overweight, including obesity, affects about one in three women, with rates of over 40 percent in Gabon, Ghana and Lesotho.

The Report finds that many countries in the African region still have wasting rates above the target of 5 percent or below, and persistent famine, flooding, and civil crises in some countries pose enduring challenges to meeting the target.

Only 17 countries have so-called “acceptable” levels of wasting, below 5 percent, while 19 have poor prevalence (5 to 9 percent).

Six countries have rates between 10 to 14%, representing a serious public health emergency, while three countries, Eritrea (15.3%), Niger (18.7%), and South Sudan (22.7%), exceed the 15% critical public health emergency threshold.

Overweight numbers rise

Estimates by UNICEF, WHO and World Bank in 2016 show that the number of overweight children in Africa increased by more than 50 percent between 2000 and 2015, with 24 countries having rates between 3 and 10 percent.

Algeria (12.4 percent), Botswana (11.2 percent), Comoros (10.9 percent), Seychelles (10.2 percent), and South Africa (10.9 percent), however, have much higher rates than the rest of the continent’s population.

“African Governments can, and should, take measures to prevent and reduce under-nutrition by creating favourable environments for improved infant and young child feeding, improved water supplies and sanitation, and offering healthier foods in schools among other measures,” said Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the Nutrition Department at the WHO.

Dr Branca emphasized the need to reduce consumption of refined carbohydrates and foods high in sugars and fat, which can be achieved by making sugary drinks less affordable and less appealing through taxation, labelling, and changing marketing practices.

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