Today, nearly 200 million children under the age of five who live in the developing world suffer from stunted growth as a result of chronic maternal and childhood undernutrition.
Undernutrition steals a child's strength and makes illnesses that the body might otherwise fight off far more dangerous. But far more devastating is the fact that more than one-third of the children who die from pneumonia, diarrhea and other illnesses could have survived had they not been undernourished.
The 1,000 days from conception until a child's second birthday are the most critical for a child's development. Nutritional deficiencies during this critical period can reduce the ability to fight and survive disease, and can impair their social and mental capacities.
Those who survive often suffer poorer physical health throughout their lives, and damaged cognitive abilities that limit their capacity to learn and to earn a decent income. They become trapped in an intergenerational cycle of ill-health and poverty.
Stunted growth is a consequence of chronic poor nutrition in early childhood. Stunting is associated with developmental problems and is often impossible to correct once it has occurred. A child who is stunted is likely to experience a lifetime of poor health and underachievement, so the answer lies in prevention.
According to a report released last week by UNICEF, "Tracking Progress on Child and Maternal Nutrition," reducing and even eliminating undernutrition is feasible. Of all the proven interventions, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months - together with nutritionally adequate foods from six months- can have a significant impact on child survival and stunting.
Good progress has been made in the delivery of cost-effective solutions to undernutrition, including micronutrients, to vulnerable populations worldwide. An example is providing more children access to iodized salt and vitamin A supplements. In the world's least developed countries, the percentage of children under five years receiving essential doses of vitamin A supplements has more than doubled, from 41 percent in 2000 to 88 percent in 2008. This has contributed to reduced infant and child mortality.
While 90 per cent of children who are stunted live in Asia and Africa, progress has been made on both continents. In Asia the prevalence of stunting dropped from about 44 percent in 1990 to an estimated 30 percent in 2008, while in Africa it fell from around 38 per cent in 1990 to an estimated 34 percent in 2008.
Global commitments on food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture are part of a wider agenda that will help address the critical issues raised in this report. Unless attention is paid to addressing the causes of child and maternal undernutrition today, the costs will be considerably higher tomorrow.
Ann Veneman is the Executive Director of UNICEF. UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. For more information about the report, "Tracking Progress on Child and Maternal Nutrition," go to www.unicef.org.