Tackling Childhood Malnutrition

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

The prestigious international relief organization Save the Children has just issued a report on the danger of chronic childhood malnutrition, entitled  A Life Free from Hunger. The report says that chronic childhood malnutrition puts almost half a billion children at risk of early death or permanent damage over the next 15 years. According to Carolyn Miles, President and CEO of Save the Children, malnutrition afflicts one in four children around the world and takes the lives of 300 children every hour.

Chronic malnutrition means lack of proper nutrition over time. Because chronic malnutrition is a persisting condition, it rarely captures headlines or attracts public attention in the way that acute malnutrition does, as seen during a food crisis. Yet chronic nutrition is far more widespread, and its consequences much deadlier. Even when it does not directly result in death, it weakens young children’s immune systems, making them more likely to die of childhood diseases like diarrhea, pneumonia, and malaria. It leads to 2 million child deaths a year, three times as many as result from acute malnutrition. It also leaves children more vulnerable to extreme suffering and death when an emergency food crisis hits.

Even when children do not die from chronic malnutrition, this condition can irreversibly damage their intellectual and physical development. The first thousand days of life, from conception to the age of 2, determine a child’s life forever. It is in this brief period that the basic structures of a child’s body and brain are formed, and if nutrition is seriously inadequate the result will be stunting, undersized bodies, weak organs, and defective brains. After this phase, it is too late to reverse the damage done to a child’s body.

The report lays out a set of thirteen basic interventions that could prevent the vast majority of cases of malnutrition. These include breastfeeding, varied foods for infants, fortified basic staples, and supplementation with vitamins and other micronutrients.

At a time when Congress gets set to debate the next budget, and many in the halls of power believe that cuts in aid to those afflicted with food insecurity are necessary to reduce the deficit, we should remember that the lives of children are far more important than dollars. As Buddhists, we cannot just sit on the sidelines as passive observers. The precept to abstain from taking life implies an obligation to protect lives, to “dwell compassionate for the welfare of all living beings,” and among the living beings that concern us, our fellow humans should take priority. The lives, health, and security of children hinge on our choices, and we must therefore be ready to act, even to apply pressure on our representatives. We must ensure that the most vulnerable children in our midst–whether in this country or around the world–need not be forced to bear the weight of chronic malnutrition.

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