The World Health Organisation (WHO) says no fewer than 59 million children in Africa are stunted while another 10 million are overweight.
The UN health agency also warned that Africa’s attempts to achieve health for all by 2030 could be threatened unless the continent address the twin challenges of under-nutrition and obesity.
Under-nutrition occurs when people do not get enough to eat, resulting in conditions such as wasting, which is when a child becomes dangerously thin. On the other hand, people who are obese have body fat levels that may impair their health.
The WHO Regional Office for Africa called these two issues “the double burden of malnutrition”. Together with diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, they are leading to “catastrophic costs” for citizens, communities and national healthcare systems across the continent.
The health experts at a WHO meeting in Nairobi, therefore, pressed for action to address the ‘double burden’ of malnutrition in Africa. “A 2016 study showed an estimated 59 million children in Africa were stunted, which is when a child is too short for their height: another condition caused by under-nutrition.
“Additionally, 14 million children suffered from wasting, which the WHO Office said is a strong predictor of mortality among children under five. “Meanwhile, 10 million Africans were overweight, which is nearly double the number from 2000,” WHO said.
The UN agency noted the rising cases of malnutrition problem, compared to a 2014 report, which estimated that five per cent of men and 15 per cent of women over 18-years-old were obese.
Dr Felicitas Zawaira, Director of the Family and Reproductive Health Cluster at the WHO Regional Office, stressed the need for healthy diets among African children. “Improving nutrition sustainably requires consideration of how to produce, deliver, and ensure access to healthy diets and essential nutrients, not just greater quantities of food,” Zawaira said.
In 2015, Heads of State adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which seek to bring about a more just and equitable world for all people and the planet by 2030. SDG 3, which focuses on good health and well-being, calls for achieving universal health coverage by this deadline, among other targets.
“Tackling all forms of malnutrition for the achievement of universal health coverage and the health-related SDGs requires remedial actions from multiple sectors and on many fronts,” Zawaira stated.
Such measures include implementing policies and action to control the marketing and consumption of unhealthy foods, or to promote consumption of healthy foods through taxation and subsidies.