New Delhi: South Asian nations must promote breastfeeding and focus on better nutrition for under two-year-olds in order to reverse the worst rates of chronically undernourished children in the world, the U.N. said on Wednesday.
According to a new report by the U.N. Children`s Fund (UNICEF), more than half of the world`s 155 million chronically undernourished under-fives are in South Asia.
The report, "Improving Child and Maternal Nutrition", said Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan topped the list with 83 million children being fed enough or poorly fed in those five countries.
Daniel Toole, regional director for UNICEF South Asia, said in an interview traditional beliefs and practices as well as the shortage of protein-rich food for infants were mostly to blame.
"Low birth weight babies from young mothers who are forced into early marriages, women who do not exclusively breastfeed and a poor choice of food given to children from the age of six months are all factors," said Toole by phone from Kathmandu.
Infants are often given contaminated water as a supplement to breast milk or have it mixed in their food, say experts, making them more susceptible to illnesses like diarrhoea which prevents the absorption of nutrients.
According to the report, more than 40 percent of children from each of the five countries in South Asia show signs of nutritional deficiencies such as stunting, which is linked to child mortality and chronic disease in adult life.
Toole said most South Asian governments had good nutrition policies in place, but these had not filtered down to the grassroots level.