06/19/2012 12:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Connecting Health and Nutrition Boosts Child Survival Efforts


Evidence shows that it's possible to reduce under-five mortality rates in developing countries to levels approaching those in wealthier countries.

That's a statement worth repeating.

With the knowledge, technical expertise, and innovative tools available today, the global community can end preventable child deaths within one generation.

That's another statement worth repeating.

Bread for the World's network of grassroots hunger advocates are working toward that time. We want to see the first year that nearly 3 million lives are saved - lives of infants beginning to smile, toddlers starting to walk without falling, and preschoolers becoming eloquent in expressing their ideas.

The world loses a vital spark with every preventable child death. That's why the Child Survival Call to Action being held June 14-15 is so important. It's convened by the governments of the United States, Ethiopia, and India, and organized in close collaboration with UNICEF. Its focus is on ending preventable child deaths through the survival of newborns, children, and mothers. The Call to Action is kicking off a long-term focused effort - by governments, private sector groups, faith-based organizations, and civil society --to save children's lives. Please visit A Promise Renewed to learn more.

Bread for the World, as the name implies, focuses on hunger and nutrition. Malnutrition contributes to 35 percent of the preventable child deaths the Call to Action seeks to end -- not least, by making childhood illnesses and other diseases far more likely to be fatal.

One extremely cost-effective way to save lives is through exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. It's critically important: babies who receive partial or no breastfeeding are more than twice as likely to die in their first few months of life. Yet just 37 percent of all infants are exclusively breastfed.

One of the barriers to exclusive breastfeeding, all over the world, is women's need to return to work, often within days or weeks rather than months. When women resume work in fields, factories, offices, and markets and are separated from their babies for hours at a stretch, the vast majority have no choice but to end exclusive breastfeeding

The knowledge that exclusive breastfeeding is essential, however, provides motivation for families and communities to find ways around the problem. For example, when mothers in Sierra Leone go to work in the fields, their babies are often left with grandmothers, who give them porridge and warm water when they are hungry.

A Catholic Relief Services (CRS) breastfeeding support program brought women together to discuss possible solutions. As a result, 18 communities decided to establish "baby friendly farms" -- plots of land that pregnant and nursing mothers cultivate. Many are near villages; the others offer a nursery nearby. The farms are open to pregnant women and mothers with children younger than 3. With training and basic tools from CRS, the women are growing nutritious foods such as beans, groundnuts, and cassava leaves -- good for both mothers and toddlers.

Awareness of the importance of nutrition interventions such as these can make child survival programs more effective. Take the common and certainly vital task of fighting infectious diseases, for example. Since disease and malnutrition reinforce each other-- both weakening a child's immune system -- they can't be effectively treated in isolation. Treatment for illnesses such as pneumonia or diarrhea should include not only the right antibiotics or other medicines, but also nutritional assessment, education and support that will help the child recover quickly and avoid new infections.

Conversely, health care settings offer excellent opportunities to detect and treat malnutrition as early as possible. Doing so is critical, since although a severely malnourished child is more likely to die than a moderately malnourished child, moderate malnutrition actually kills more children. Waiting until malnutrition is so severe that it's obvious to any observer is courting tragedy. Instead, scaling up training and education efforts to treat both forms of malnutrition needs to be a top priority of the child survival agenda.

Any one of a wide range of health services should be able to detect malnutrition; just a few of the possibilities are prenatal care, maternity wards, community health programs for vulnerable households, well child care and programs seeking to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

Linking Nutrition and Health: Progress and Opportunities offers detailed recommendations on strengthening the connections between better health and better nutrition -- an effort that will help boost child survival rates.

Here's a quick rundown of a few of the steps needed to build those connections:

• Prioritize the most vulnerable populations, including pregnant and postpartum women and children under two.

• Coordinate the U.S. government's approach to scaling up effective nutrition interventions, and integrate nutrition into health programs.

• Support country-owned, country-led nutrition strategies developed through a consultative process.

The global community is more aware than ever of the critical importance of the 1,000-day period between pregnancy and a child's second birthday. This is when malnutrition is most likely to lead to death or lifelong disability. But the flip side is that this time is also a "window of opportunity." Ensuring that young children are well nourished has a dramatic impact on their whole lives -- most immediately, on their survival to celebrate a fifth birthday.