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A chance for each child: A proposal for a new TC project aims to gather data to improve programmes that address stunting

Poor nutrition and/or health conditions can cause stunting in children - a condition where the child's growth is compromised and the child does not reach her or his linear growth potential, i.e. the child is too short for her or his age. Stunting causes around one million child deaths each year, and is the reference indicator of childhood undernutrition and risk of delay in cognitive development. Stunting can be caused by many factors, including household food insecurity, inadequate nutrition, unsanitary conditions and a lack of access to health care.

However, stunting can be prevented by several interventions which include improving infant and young child feeding practices, and preventive zinc  or micronutrient supplementation that includes zinc. Hygiene improvement - water, sanitation and hand washing - is also important. Stable isotope techniques can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of national programmes to address stunting in children.

This August, a kick-off meeting for a proposed interregional project, "Contributing to the Evidence Base to Improve Stunting Reduction Programmes", was held at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna. Representatives from the Ministries of Health and local research institutions of 12 countries from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America came together to review the nutrition situation in their respective countries. They discussed their plans to address stunting, the methods used for assessing these interventions and how stable isotopes can be used to add value to these evaluations. The participants were assisted by nutrition experts from the IAEA, as well as from universities in Thailand, USA and Malaysia and representatives from the World Bank and CARE International. All 12 participating countries are part of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement, of which the IAEA is a member through the UN Network for SUN.

The proposed interregional project is aligned with two of the draft Sustainable Development Goals: 'End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture' and 'Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages'. If approved by the IAEA Board of Governors, the proposed project will be implemented over a four year period in collaboration with UNICEF, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and CARE International, starting in January 2016.

The proposed project aims to assess the effectiveness of specific Government programmes as well as the underlying factors for a low response in the population to programmes addressing stunting. Using of stable isotope techniques, the nutrient absorption capacity of children, as well as adherence to recommended breastfeeding practices and the quality of children's growth, can be assessed safely and accurately. The results will enable policymakers to identify the most efficient nutritional interventions and devise adequate strategies. Scientists and technicians from the participating countries will be trained in the use of stable isotope techniques for the collection of the relevant data.

"Let's give a chance to each child", said Dr. Ir. Waliou Amoussa Hounkpatin, from the Faculty of Food Science and Agriculture, University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin, during the kick-off meeting.

S.M. Ziauddin Hyder from the World Bank said during the meeting, "It is time that science helps policy makers shaping national interventions that can reduce stunting and improve the nutritional status of the population. There is an urgent need to manage limited resources in a very targeted way. The interregional project can play this role!"


After the critical period of the first thousand days - from conception to the child's second birthday - stunted children often have irreversible developmental problems. Malnutrition has serious consequences for health, learning capacity, productivity, economic development and security. Children who are affected by stunting before the age of two years and have not been stimulated by their close home environment, have poorer cognitive and educational performance in their later childhood and adolescence.

Recent global data indicate that stunting of linear growth has globally affected 25% of children younger than five years. 90% of those affected live in 34 countries in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.


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