By: Karyn Wulf, MD, MPH, Pediatric Medical Director at Abbott
Appropriate growth during childhood lays the foundation for a lifetime of health. While important, growth alone does not always tell the full story of a child’s health. A child may not be getting all the nutrients they need, and occasional growth screenings may not catch nutrient deficiencies until a child is malnourished. The consequences of nutrient deficiencies can include not only poor growth, but also impaired physical or cognitive development. Identifying children at risk is crucial so that dietary or nutritional interventions can be started long before growth or development issues occur.
Currently, there is no universal malnutrition screening tool used in pediatric care, and childhood malnutrition remains far too common around the world. Nearly 150 million children under 5 are stunted and 50 million are wasted, demonstrating an urgent need for a pediatric screening process to identify those who are at nutritional risk.
Impact of Childhood Malnutrition
Malnutrition occurs in high-, middle- and low-income countries and can take on many different forms that are not always easy to diagnose. Children may lack proper nutrition because of eating and feeding disorders, poor diet quality, or an illness or condition that challenges food intake or nutrient absorption. Some families cannot afford or lack access to nutritious foods, while others may not follow a diverse diet or have children that are picky eaters.
Inadequate nutrition early in life impairs growth in childhood and jeopardizes a child’s likelihood of reaching their full linear growth potential. A poor nutritional start can also predispose a child to health problems from early childhood through adulthood. Developmental delays caused by early undernutrition can affect cognitive outcomes and impair productive potential as adults. Taken together, impaired physical growth and cognitive ability can lead to loss of future productivity.
Improving children’s nutrition requires effective and sustained efforts, which is why clinicians and experts at Abbott, a global healthcare company, have proposed a stepwise strategy to raise awareness and to work toward a screening pathway to end childhood malnutrition.[i] In order to address childhood malnutrition it will be important to:
1. Identify effective universal screening tools
2. Train healthcare professionals in both hospital and community settings
3. Develop quality improvement programs to make sure nutrition screening and intervention is being effectively implemented
4. Measure and communicate results
Parents and caregivers also have a role to play in advancing the progress of childhood malnutrition screening. Pediatricians, parents and caregivers can work together to ensure children are being screened early and often, especially if a child is at-risk.
We all can advance pediatric care and address childhood malnutrition. Having a universal screening process can help promote early identification to ensure children get nutritional support to reverse deficiencies. Ultimately, these efforts can help reverse global malnutrition and help meet the World Health Organization’s goal to end all forms of childhood malnutrition by 2030.
[i] Murray RD, et al. Nutrition and Dietary Supplements 2021:13 17–24
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