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Toward a Healthier Future: IAEA Symposium on the Double Burden of Malnutrition Concludes


To better understand the impact of nutrition on national health, countries like Mauritius are turning to nuclear techniques. Experts discussed this in-depth at the International Symposium on Understanding the Double Burden of Malnutrition.  (Video: Luciana Viegas Assumpcao, Josef Weilguny/IAEA)

One in three people worldwide suffer from some form of malnutrition, such as obesity, undernutrition or nutrient deficiencies, and in many cases, people suffer from more than one form. Long-lasting, sustainable solutions to this complex problem require better data on nutrition and the impact of actions, an increase in targeted investments and a more integrated approach across governments, businesses, researchers and the public, concluded experts last week at the International Symposium on Understanding the Double Burden of Malnutrition for Effective Interventions. Nuclear-related techniques can accurately assess various forms of malnutrition and provide data for strengthening action-oriented solutions.

“Next to climate change, the food crisis is the largest humanitarian crisis we have,” said Clemens Auer, Special Envoy for Health for the Austrian Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Health and Consumer Protection. “It is wonderful that the United Nations has put it in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but policy makers also have to understand the fragmentation, the commercial determinants and interests, and tackle industry, such as the food and beverage industry.”

Every country in the world is affected by at least one form of malnutrition, with a quarter of the countries facing a ‘double burden’ of malnutrition. This ‘double burden’ refers to a complex situation where food insecurity, micronutrient deficiencies, undernutrition and infectious diseases co-exist alongside overweight, obesity and related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in countries, communities and can even co-exist in an individual person.

As of 2017, 151 million children under five were stunted (22.2%), 51 million were acutely malnourished (7.5%) and 38 million were overweight (5.6%).

“Malnutrition in all its forms is by far the biggest cause of premature death and disability. Improvements are happening globally overall, but it is slow,” said Boyd Swinburn, Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

More than 450 scientists, health and nutrition professionals, policy makers and representatives from international organizations, non-governmental organizations and civil society gathered for the four-day symposium. It was the first time the IAEA, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) joined forces for a major conference on tackling the double burden of malnutrition.

    Opening session of the IAEA International Symposium on Understanding the Double Burden of Malnutrition for Effective Interventions. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

    Symposium discussions, presentations and poster sessions involved a comprehensive and in-depth look at combatting malnutrition from five angles: epidemiology, biology, assessment, interventions and policy implications. They also explored the role of international organizations and global efforts, such as the United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition, and the importance of strengthening collective actions across organizations, countries and communities to ramp up the fight against malnutrition.

    “Collective leadership has improved in the past five years and now is the time to take it to the next level,” said Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director at Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and 2018 World Food Prize laureate. He explained how UN organizations, such as the IAEA, UNICEF and the WHO, can work with countries to set out and achieve targets to support national strategies and the Scaling Up Nutrition movement, a global collaborative initiative to improve nutrition.

    “Build the next generation and get out there and tell people what the scientific papers mean and what they can do to act on them,” Haddad said. “We have to elevate and come together, but more than that, we have to recruit recruits to our cause.”

    Targets and collective actions for the future were a common thread throughout the symposium. Presentations and breakout sessions provided opportunities for participants to identify concrete actions, learn about new assessment tools and discuss strategic opportunities and actions, as well as chart out how to measure malnutrition and assess the impact of interventions with tools such as stable isotopes.

    “Stable isotope techniques can help evaluate and monitor nutrition programmes that are in place. We can design and implement a wide range of interventions. However, if we don’t have a dependable method to evaluate them, how can we know if they are working?” said May Abdel-Wahab, Director of the IAEA’s Division on Human Health. “The IAEA tackles many forms of malnutrition through strengthening the use of the stable isotope techniques within Member States. It’s an important piece of the puzzle and can also help support other programmes and initiatives, such as WHO and UNICEF programmes on-the-ground.”

    In closing the symposium, participants laid out actions on the way forward, reflecting the findings and conclusions identified over the course of the week. These included:

    • Building partnerships across disciplines and stakeholder levels;
    • Demystifying nutrition for the public and other non-nutrition sectors; and
    • Engaging with youth to boost awareness raising.

    Launch of new nutrition resources: IAEA database and 2018 Global Nutrition Report

    On the margins of the conference, the IAEA launched a new database on energy expenditure measurements from the last three decades. The data was collected using a stable isotope technique called the Doubly Labelled Water method. This data will help researchers look at the impact of growing sedentary lifestyles on dietary needs and support countries in devising better health policies to combat the growing obesity epidemic worldwide. Read more about the new IAEA database.

    Complementing the database is the 2018 Global Nutrition Report, which was launched at four events worldwide including the conference last week. The independent report is a data-driven publication on the status of malnutrition around the world produced by experts across the nutrition comunity. It provides global, regional and country-by-country assessments of nutrition and the efforts being made to improve it. It also tracks progress on global nutrition targets and outlines steps for speeding up that progress. The IAEA is part of the stakeholder group that provides the overall strategic direction for the report.

    In the lead up to the conference, a video competition was also launched to raise awareness about malnutrition with the public and encourage engagement by answering the question: “If you had a chance, how would you tackle the double burden of malnutrition using a science-based approach?” The winning short video, which was shown during the symposium's closing session, was created by Daniela Garza, Lorena Lee and Viviana Torres, students from the University of Monterey in Mexico. They highlighted their research on obesity and anemia in teenager girls in Mexico as an example of the co-existence of many forms of malnutrition. The video proposed unifying scientific efforts across disciplines and creating stronger public policies to tackle malnutrition. Learn more about the competition and watch the winning video. 

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