Stunted growth: India needs to tackle poor access to sanitation for over half the population if it wants to curb stunting

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Published: July 27, 2016 6:22:58 AM

That India has the highest number of children who suffer from stunting—a form of malnutrition in which the ideal physical and cognitive development is impaired irreversibly during the first 1,000 days of a person’s life—is shameful for a nation that aspires to become a top economy, banking on its demographic dividend.

That India has the highest number of children who suffer from stunting—a form of malnutrition in which the ideal physical and cognitive development is impaired irreversibly during the first 1,000 days of a person’s life—is shameful for a nation that aspires to become a top economy, banking on its demographic dividend. Globally, 159 million children under the age of five—or one in every four children in the age group—suffer from stunting, of which 48 million are from India, as per a report by Water Aid. While malnourishment is one of the primary causes of malnutrition, malabsorption of nutrients—often brought about by diseases such as diarrhoea and intestinal worms—are also responsible for stunting.
Given how nearly half of all poor child nutrition cases can be linked to diarrhoea, worm infestation and other diseases that spread through poor hygiene and sanitation— a quarter of all stunting cases are linked to chronic diarrhoea, 88% of which, in turn are linked to poor sanitation practices—eliminating the scourge of open defecation becomes a must for India. The Lancet estimates that interventions to address malnutrition such as nutrient supplements and encouraging breastfeeding can only reduce stunting in worst-affected countries by 20%, even when 90% of the target population is covered. This means that the maximum gain in reducing stunting can only come from improving sanitation and hygiene standards. Even though India has made impressive progress in bringing down stunting—it fell from 48% in 2006 to 39% in 2014—there is still a lot of ground to be covered, given more than half of the country’s population doesn’t have access to proper sanitation.

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