Malnutrition is a complex issue with multifactorial causes. Each country is unique when it comes to the causes of malnutrition, but generally malnutrition relates to a lack of food security caused by: natural disasters, poverty, lack of nutritional education, limited healthcare access, poor sanitation and hygiene practices, and a lack of safe drinking water.
Malnutrition can cause stunting or wasting due to an acute illness, anemia from iron deficiency, and vitamin deficiencies, such as those of vitamin A, zinc, iodine, folate, and vitamin B12. The conditions underlying malnutrition are exacerbated by specific environmental factors, like droughts and floodings. The impacts of malnutrition put children, especially, in a more vulnerable position.
All countries and aid agencies have programs in place to combat child malnutrition. In many cases, they are effective: The rate of stunting has declined from 43 percent in 1990 to 28 percent in 2012, globally, and the percentage of underweight children has decreased from 30 percent to 19 percent for the same time frame.
However, the menace of malnutrition is far from over, and a lot of concerted effort is still required because nearly half of the world’s children younger than the age of five were stunted in 2021.
Let’s look at some of the most common causes of malnutrition in children.
1. Birth Injury
Birth injuries often lead to malnutrition because infants born with them are rendered disabled from birth. They might suffer from traumatic injuries or disabilities that might restrict them from forming normal feeding habits.
There are many different types of birth injuries, ranging from brain damage due to oxygen deprivation in premature babies, broken bones during labor, and infections (such as pneumonia) that can occur during delivery. Normally, the treatment costs for birth injuries may put a normal family in financial dire straits. However, they can seek birth injury legal assistance and get their compensations to pay for the medical bills and treatment expenses.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines stunting as the state of impaired growth among children due to a lack of nutrition in early childhood. Stunting affects roughly 130 million children worldwide, causing them to appear shorter for their age due to a lack of proper nutrition. Stunting has lifelong consequences, which makes essential that it is addressed as soon as possible.
3. Chronic Illnesses
About 20 percent of children living in developing countries suffer from some kind of chronic illness. Many of these illnesses, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, measles, and diarrhea, cause severe malnutrition.
These are diseases that are preventable through vaccinations, but a lack of awareness or a general vaccine hesitancy may lead to baseless fears among the parents, who then don’t let their children get vaccinated. This vaccine hesitancy is especially prominent in areas with general mistrust in government institutions.
4. Over-nutrition in Mothers
Overfeeding in pregnant women can lead to many birthing complications, including stillbirths. To combat the problem, many countries require pregnant mothers to take classes on nutrition. Then there are other countries that offer subsidies to women who breastfeed rather than bottle-feed, which reduces the risk of malnourishment in children. Expecting mothers are encouraged to eat healthy foods at the best Sunday brunch restaurant, stay hydrated, and stay away from alcohol and smoking.
5. Lack of Safe Drinking Water
Many people harbor the notion that the unavailability of safe drinking water is an issue existing only in the developed countries, in fact, the developing world equally suffers from it. One of the major causes of malnutrition in children, living in rural areas, is dehydration. Child mortality rates are higher in rural communities because there is a lack of access to clean drinking water. In many such areas, diseases like cholera and diarrhea spread through the use of contaminated water sources.
6. Poor Sanitation and Hygiene Practices
Poor sanitation and hygiene practices increase the risks of malnutrition in children. For example, diarrhea, which is commonly caused by following unhygienic practices, leads to a loss of nutrients and anemia in children.
In addition, insufficient handwashing can also lead to diarrhea and the formation of intestinal worms. In many such cases, the symptoms and disease get aggravated with a lack of access to clean running water.
7. Food Security
Food security refers to the availability of sufficient quantities of nutritious food to meet the dietary requirements of individuals within a given population. To keep up with global demand, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that around 70 percent more food needs to be produced by 2050.
Unfortunately, climate change, soil degradation, pollution, and the growing world population threaten our ability to produce enough food.
8. Lack of Nutrition Education
Malnutrition can be prevented if parents are aware of their children’s nourishing needs. Children in developing countries who cannot attend school fail to grasp the importance of nutrition through education.
In some cases, parents living in rural areas with rampant poverty may be aware of the dietary needs of their children but would be unable to provide for them due to obvious financial constraints. More often than not, however, most of these parents are unaware of what constitutes a balanced diet. As a result, the children are fed nutrient-poor diets that are cheaper and readily available.
9. Lack of Access to Medicines
Some of the most common causes of malnutrition in children include infectious diseases, such as malaria, measles, and diarrhea, which are also easily preventable with vaccines and medications. Malaria alone kills around 438,000 children each year. In addition, many children cannot access treatment for chronic illnesses because their families cannot pay for the medicine costs. Medicines are expensive for the average family living in the developing world.
10. A High Rate of Children Living Below the Poverty Line
About 870 million people live on less than $1.90 per day, which means that these families cannot provide their children with adequate nutrition.
Families living in poverty are often forced to prioritize paying rent, buying groceries, and other necessities over their basic healthcare needs, making it difficult for the children of such households to thrive. Poverty also forces the parents to work for longer hours, leaving he children back at home to fend for themselves.
11. Discrimination against Women
Discrimination against women limits their control over resources, which includes food as well. Some cultures force pregnant women to stay indoors during the later stages of their pregnancy. Women are also restricted from working with the same dedication when they’re menstruating. Such discriminatory practices often lead to a lack of nutrition and reproduction education among the women, which contributes to poor health outcomes overall.
Malnutrition is a global issue that impacts millions of children. Without significant preventive and remedial actions, this problem continues to worsen. Many organizations, such as CARE International and Save the Children, are working toward ending global hunger and malnutrition. But with such diversified causes pushing it, a concerted and multi-pronged strategy is required that successfully targets all of the above-mentioned causes.