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The Fight Against Maternal and Child Undernutrition

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2013-06-10-121289_LancetSMimages_v1_8.jpgIn January 2008, The Lancet, the world's leading medical journal, published its ground breaking series on maternal and child nutrition, which successfully identified to the world the damaging effects of undernutrition.

The Series focused on interventions that could effectively and affordably reduce undernutrition, and played a key role in shifting the development agenda and spurring international action, helping to create global interest, leadership and commitment. Attention was also drawn to the first 1,000 days, from conception to two years of age, as a critical window of opportunity for growth and development.

At the time, I had recently begun working with mothers and their young children in the highlands of Ecuador with nutrition interventions, as part of my PhD research. It was an exciting time for nutrition and I felt part of a great global movement. I was also constantly reminded of what those 1,000 days meant for each of the growing babies in my project.

Five years later, I am even more committed and connected to the global nutrition movement and The Lancet is, too, as it continues to support the global nutrition agenda. The Lancet's 2013 nutrition series, launched in London, U.K., on June 6, looks at the unfinished agenda and how new ways must be found to reach mothers, children and young adults in the coming five years. Venkatesh Mannar, President of the Micronutrient Initiative, where I'm working now, is a co-author of one of the four papers, focusing on innovative ways to reach those most at risk.

We know that much has been accomplished to reduce the burden from undernutrition in the past five years; however, our work is far from over. Let's roll up our sleeves, everyone, and dig deeper is the main message coming from the new Series. There is more to be done.

This is definitely the case in Guatemala, where I'm working with our Grand Challenges Canada project team right now. Guatemala is a country where nearly every other child under five years old is chronically malnourished, with even higher rates among Indigenous communities.

Undernutrition is the underlying cause of far too many deaths, and also leads to long term developmental and health problems, including weakened immune systems that can no longer fight off diseases, like diarrhoeal disease. In this vibrant country, diarrhoeal disease kills close to 1,000 children under the age of five every year. For those who survive, it wreaks havoc on their young bodies, holding them back from play and limiting their ability to grow and learn. Using zinc, in combination with oral rehydration salts, to treat diarrhoea helps children get better faster, at only about 50 cents for a full course of treatment. Affordable and simple, the Government of Guatemala has been working to scale up this important nutritional health program.

We are listening carefully and working to meet the needs of mothers when their child is sick from diarrhoea. We are working with health care workers, so they can be the agents of change for their communities and for the young children they treat. We are working to ensure that effective and inexpensive nutrition interventions are available and being used by the families who need them.

The Lancet series may not be well known to families throughout the world, but it is setting the stage for the next act of a global movement whose impact will be felt as we successfully reach the most vulnerable, those who are hardest to reach. In the daily reality for families, parents may not care very much about research and stats when their child is fighting for his or her life, but they are living the experience of being one of those numbers. They just want their child to be healthy and happy, again.

The Lancet provides valuable information and its important research will be incorporated into the work of policy makers, program people and decision makers. It will help keep the global nutrition momentum moving forward, as we continue to work hard in countries like Guatemala. And I am proud to be a part of that momentum.

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