Module 1: Introduction

The global prevalence of maternal and child malnutrition is devastatingly high, and is a major contributing factor to the high mortality rate and burden of infectious diseases seen in developing countries. Proper nutrition is necessary for good health and well-being, but is not easily attainable by all. Estimates published in The Lancet indicate that “maternal and child undernutrition is the underlying cause of 3.5 million deaths, 35% of the global disease burden in children younger than 5 years and 11% of total global [disability-adjusted life-years].”(1) 

Malnutrition is widespread throughout the developing world, but is especially prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. A total of 36 countries account for about 90% of all stunted children worldwide, and more than half of these countries are located in Africa.(2) Southeast Asia represents a great proportion of the total number of stunted children worldwide:  India alone is home to about 34% of the total, with over 61 million stunted children.(3) Short physical stature and low body-mass index among mothers range from 10-19% in most countries, but can reach as high as 40% as seen in India.(4) 

Undernutrition is caused by inadequate dietary consumption that does not meet the body’s daily energy and micronutrient requirements, but there are also many social, political, and economic factors involved. Poverty and low socioeconomic status can be viewed as causes as well as consequences of child and maternal undernutrition. Undernutrition is perpetuated by unreliable access to healthcare, unsatisfactory environmental living conditions, and food insecurity. Women of low socioeconomic status are especially vulnerable to undernutrition because they are often responsible for feeding their families and opt to eat last and least.(5) 

Maternal malnutrition can cause birth complications, iron deficiency anemia, and higher risks of maternal and child mortality.(6) Maternal undernutrition as indicated by measures of stature and weight is a good predictor of whether the baby will be born with a low birth weight.(7)  Further, child undernutrition causes stunting and severe wasting, which are among the greatest risk factors for disease and early death among children. Health consequences of malnutrition include a weakened immune system (which causes an increased risk of infection or disease), poor cognitive capacity, impaired physical development, and a high risk of deficiency-related illness. 

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(1) Black, R.E., Allen, L.H., Bhutta, Z.A, Caulfield, L.E., de Onis, M., Ezzati, M. et al. (2008). Maternal and child undernutrition: global and regional exposures and health consequences. The Lancet, 371: 243-260.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) USAID (2010). USAID Bangladesh: Food Security. Accessed 18 October 2011.

(6) Shannon, K., Mahmud, Z., Asfia, A., & Ali, M. (2008). The social and environmental factors underlying maternal malnutrition in rural Bangladesh: implications for reproductive health and nutrition programs. Health Care for Women International, 29: 826-840.

(7) Nahar, S., Mascie-Taylor, C.G.N., & Begum, H.A. (2007). Maternal anthropometry as a predictor of birth weight. Public Health Nutrition, 10(7): 965-970.