Undernutrition in children, occurs when children do not consume enough calories, protein, or micronutrients to maintain good health. It is common globally and may result in both short and long term irreversible adverse health outcomes. Undernutrition is sometimes used synonymously with malnutrition, however, malnutrition could mean both undernutrition or overnutrition (causing childhood obesity). The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that malnutrition accounts for 54 percent of child mortality worldwide, which is about 1 million children. Another estimate, also by WHO, states that childhood underweight is the cause for about 35% of all deaths of children under the age of five worldwide.
The main causes of malnutrition are often related to poverty: unsafe water, inadequate sanitation or insufficient hygiene, factors related to society, diseases, maternal factors, gender issues as well as other factors.
Linked to ⅓ of all child deaths, malnutrition is especially dangerous for women and children. Malnourished women will usually have malnourished fetuses while they are pregnant, which can lead to physically and mentally stunted children, creating a cycle of malnutrition and underdevelopment. One of the most severe at risk populations are children under 5. Malnutrition during the early stages of development can have negative and severe effects on growth and intellectual development. This effect on a child’s intellectual quotient makes it harder for them later in life to achieve their true potential abilities. Breaking the cycle of malnutrition during early childhood development can break the cycle of intergenerational poverty among poor communities.
There are a variety of ways in which malnutrition can affect the body. Globally, 162 million children show symptoms of malnutrition such as stunting, which is an indicator of malnourishment. The WHO reported that two out of five children that are stunted live in Southern Asia, however Africa is the only region where there is an increasing number of stunted children. Common micronutrient deficiencies are iron, zinc, iodine, and vitamin A. Micronutrient deficiencies can cause an increase of illness due to a compromised immune systems or abnormal physiology and development.
Protein-Energy Malnutrition (PEM) is another form of malnutrition that affects children. PEM can appear as conditions called marasmus, kwashiorkor, and an intermediate state of marasmus-kwashiorkor. Although malnutrition can have severe and lasting health effects on women and children, they are still susceptible to other water-related dangers.