As many nutrition-deficiency illnesses starts during pregnancy and childhood, WHO officers said women were the key to preventing future malnourished generations.
Francesco Branca, the director of nutrition for health and development at the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO), said on Tuesday that many different nutritional challenges such as low birth weight, stunted growth and micro-nutrient deficiencies among children began during pregnancy and neonatal periods.
“We cannot solve nutrition problems in one night. If you want to prepare for the next generation, you have to act through young women,” Branca said.
“Failure to address this need would cause heavy social and economic consequences for countries.”
The WHO said malnutrition accounts for 11 percent of the global disease burden. Malnourished children may suffer long-term health problems and disabilities that will poorly affect their educational and development potential.
About 20 percent of deaths among children under five years old could be prevented through simple measures such as exclusive breast-feeding in the first six months, introducing safe, complimentary foods after six months and continuing breast-feeding for the first two years.
An estimated 71 million children in Asia are underweight.
To cope with nutrition-related health problems, the WHO created the Electronic Library of Evidence for Nutrition Actions, a nutrition guideline system accessible online. It contains nutrition interventions such as food fortifications and vitamin supplements, which range in effectiveness among age groups.
“We want people — especially policy makers — to be able to find the nutrition intervention strategies they need in one place so they can decide on the best way to improve the nutritional status in their countries instead of using wasteful methods that are not based on scientific evidence,” said Branca on the sidelines of a journalists briefing of a bi-regional meeting about scaling-up nutrition in Colombo, Sri Lanka, which commenced on Wednesday.
Nutrition experts from Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific regions gathered at the meeting to improve nutritional status information, which is needed to identify areas most in need of assistance to improve nutrition security in Asia and the Pacific regions.
Kunal Bagchi, the Regional Adviser for Nutrition and Food Safety from the WHO Regional Office for South-east Asia, said that while some Asia Pacific countries wrestled with nutrition deficiency, others faced the double burden of malnourished children and obesity.
“Obesity that may lead to chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases is becoming a recognized problem, even in low income countries,” he said.
In Western Asia, the number of overweight children up to five years old was increasing, Kunal said. Globally, more than 40 million children under five are overweight or obese.
Branca said Indonesia has shown progress after being affected by vitamin A deficiencies for a long time.
The emerging challenge is obesity that starts early in life and leads to diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and high blood pressure.
Branca said various interventions such as reducing salt and eliminating trans-fatty acids and saturated fats from diets could be taken to reduce obesity without causing major cost to the government.