Courtesy Reuters

Malnutrition and National Development

New evidence suggesting a relationship between malnutrition and mental retardation should be cause for major policy concern in a number of world capitals. The recognition that malnourished children may emerge from childhood lacking the ability to reach their full genetic intellectual potential introduces a new and perhaps frightening note into theories of national development.

The implications are ominous. For many years we have assumed that, given educational opportunities and environmental advantages, each normally born infant has every prospect of growing up to be bright and productive. It is now suggested that malnourished children may be basically dull. The significance of this can be appreciated when we recognize that as many as two-thirds of the children of most developing countries are now suffering from some degree of malnutrition.

The relationship of malnutrition to mental growth dramatizes the issue. However, the insidious drain of malnutrition on national development takes other significant forms. Half the deaths in the developing countries occur among children under six years of age. In certain African countries, Libya for example, a mother must have five children to assure that one reaches the age of fifteen. In Northeast Brazil, 48 percent do not survive the first year of life; by the age of four, 63 percent have succumbed. In parts of Southeast Asia, 40 percent of the children die of disease in their first four years. This is a proportion of deaths not reached in the United States until the age of sixty.

The vast majority of these child deaths are attributed to infectious diseases. Yet most of these diseases are relatively minor childhood ailments. The cause of the death, we now know, is not the infection itself, but usually the malnourished condition of the child when he contracted it. In other words, malnutrition debilitates the body to such a degree that it is incapable of resisting what would otherwise be a passing infection. In a country like Ecuador, child death due to measles is more than 300 times greater (per thousand of population)

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