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World Child Hunger Facts

Children suffer most from hunger, also referred to as malnutrition or undernutrition. Their mothers also suffer greatly from malnutrition, which affects the child before birth. There are two basic types of malnutrition. The first and most important is protein—energy malnutrition—the lack of enough protein (from meat and other sources) and food that provides energy (measured in calories) which all of the basic food groups provide. This is the type of malnutrition referred to when world hunger is discussed. The second type of malnutrition is micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) deficiency. This is not the type of malnutrition referred to when world hunger is discussed, though it is certainly very important. 

The meaning of hunger and its measurement in children

Protein-energy malnutrition (PEM), in some degree, is essentially what is meant by hunger.  Protein-energy malnutrition is basically a lack of calories and protein. Food is converted into energy by humans, and the energy contained in food is measured by calories.  Protein is necessary for key body functions including provision of essential amino acids and  development and maintenance of muscles.

Undernutrition in children appears in three ways, and it is most commonly assessed through the measurement of weight and height.  A child can be too short for his or her age (stunted), have low weight for his or her height (wasted), or have low weight for his or her age (underweight).  A child who is underweight can also be stunted or wasted or both  (UNICEF 2009, p. 13).

Stunting. Stunting affects approximately 195 million children under 5 years old in the developing world, or about one in three.  Africa and Asia have high stunting rates—40 percent and 36 percent, respectively—and more than 90 percent of the world's stunted children live on these two continents.(UNICEF 2009, pp. 15–19).

Wasting. Children who suffer from wasting face a markedly increased chance of death.  According to UNICEF, 13 percent of children under 5 years old in the developing world are wasted, and 5 percent are extremely wasted, an estimated 26 million children (UNICEF 2009, p. 20).

Underweight. UNICEF estimates that 129 million children under 5 years old in the developing world are underweight--nearly one in four.   Ten percent of children in the developing world are severely underweight.  The prevalence of underweight is higher in Asia than in Africa, with rates of 27 percent and 21 percent, respectively.  (UNICEF 2009, p. 17).

Other key facts about child hunger and mortality

The estimated number of childhood deaths in 2010 was 7.6 million. Since 1990 the golobal under-five mortality rate has dropped 35 percent—from 88 deaths per 1000 live births in 1990 to 57 in 2010. The highest rates of child mortality are still in Sub-Saharan Africawhere 1 in 8 children dies before age 5, more than 17 times the average for developed regions (1 in 43)—and Southern Asia (1 in 15).  Under-five deaths are increasingly concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia.

Poor nutrition plays a role in at least half of the 7.6 million child deaths each year.  (UNICEF 2008, p 1). Children who are poorly nourished suffer up to 160 days of illness each year.  Undernutrition magnifies the effect of every disease, including measles and malaria.  The estimated proportions of deaths in which undernutrition is an underlying cause are roughly similar for diarrhea (61%), malaria (57%), pneumonia (52%), and measles (45%) (Black 2003, Bryce et al. 2005).   Malnutrition can also be caused by diseases, such as the diseases that cause diarrhea, by reducing the body's ability to convert food into usable nutrients.

In developing countries, almost one out of every 15 children will die before they reach the age of five (derived from UNICEF 2008 Summary table 1 p. 117 and also from UNICME p. 6 Table 1).

The main cause of child hunger is poverty. Extreme poverty remains an alarming problem in the world’s developing countries, despite some progress that reduced "dollar—now $1.25—a day" poverty from (an estimated) 1900 million people in 1981 to an estimated 1,345 million poor people in 2005 (World Bank 2008), a reduction of 29 percent over the period. Two significant, but less important, causes are conflict, often euphemistically referred to as a 'man-made disaster'  and natural disasters such as droughts and floods. Both conflict and natural disasters as causes of hunger occur almost exclusively in poor countries.

Poverty causes other aspects of children's poor health, not only their hunger, increasing the impact of both hunger and other types of poor health..  To take a key example,  poor children live in urban slums or in poor agricultural communities without sewers or other sanitation facilities for removal of human and animal excrement or garbage removal. This lack of sanitation can cause sickness, and also, by contaminating the the water supply, cause further sickness.  From these sources, children get diarrhea, to name just one important cause of illness.  Diarrhea keeps children from getting enough nutrients from their food and thus is an important cause of hunger, especially wasting.

Hunger is also a cause of poverty. By causing poor health, low levels of energy, and even mental impairment, hunger, especially in childhood, can lead to even greater poverty by reducing people’s ability to work and learn. 


Quite a few  trace elements or micronutrients—vitamins and minerals—are important for health. One out of three people in developing countries are affected by vitamin and mineral deficiencies, according to the World Health Organization. Three micronutrients, perhaps the most important in terms of health consequences for poor people in developing countries, are:

Vitamin A Vitamin A deficiency  can cause night blindness and reduces the body’s resistance to disease. In children Vitamin A deficiency can also cause growth retardation. Between 100 and 140 million children are vitamin A deficient. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 Vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight. (World Health Organization.)

Iron Iron deficiency is a principal cause of anemia. Two billion people—over 30 percent of the world’s population—are anemic, mainly due to iron deficiency, and, in developing countries, frequently exacerbated by malaria and worm infections. For children, health consequences include premature birth, low birth weight, infections, and elevated risk of death. Later, physical and cognitive development are impaired, resulting in lowered school performance. For pregnant women, anemia contributes to 20 percent of all maternal deaths (World Health Organization).

Iodine Iodine deficiency disorders (IDD) jeopardize children’s mental health—often their very lives. Serious iodine deficiency during pregnancy may result in stillbirths, abortions and congenital abnormalities such as cretinism, a grave, irreversible form of mental retardation that affects people living in iodine-deficient areas of Africa and Asia. IDD also causes mental impairment that lowers intellectual prowess at home, at school, and at work. IDD affects over 740 million people, 13 percent of the world’s population. Fifty million people have some degree of mental impairment caused by IDD (World Health Organization).

Updated September 2, 2012


Black RE, Morris SS, Bryce J. 2003. "Where and why are 10 million children dying every year?" Lancet.  Jun 28;361(9376):2226-34.

Black, Robert E, Lindsay H Allen, Zulfiqar A Bhutta, Laura E Caulfield, Mercedes de Onis, Majid Ezzati, Colin Mathers, Juan Rivera, for the Maternal and Child Undernutrition Study Group. 2008. Maternal and child undernutrition: global and regional exposures and health consequences. (Article access may require registration) The Lancet  Vol. 371, Issue 9608, 19 January, 243-260.

Jennifer Bryce, Cynthia Boschi-Pinto, Kenji Shibuya, Robert E. Black, and the WHO Child Health Epidemiology Reference Group. 2005. "WHO estimates of the causes of death in children." Lancet ; 365: 1147–52.

Caulfield LE, de Onis M, Blössner M, Black RE. 2004. Undernutrition as an underlying cause of child deaths associated with diarrhea, pneumonia, malaria, and measles. American Journal of  Clinical Nutrition ; 80: 193–98.

de Onis, Mercedes,Edward A. Frongillo and Monika Blossner. 2000. "Is malnutrition declining? An analysis of changes in levels of child malnutrition since 1980." Bulletin of the World Health Organization  1222–1233.

International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). 2010. 2010 Global Hunger Index (56 page PDF file)  See especially Chapter 3.

Pelletier DL, Frongillo EA Jr, Schroeder D, Habicht JP. 1995. The effects of malnutrition on child mortality in developing countries.. Bulletin of the  World Health Organization 73(4) 443–48.

UNICEF. 2008. The State of the World's Children 2008: Women and Children - Child Survival  New York

UNICEF. 2009. Tracking progress on child and maternal nutrition: A survival and development priority. New York (124 page PDF file)

United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (UNICME). 2011. "Levels and Trends in Child Mortality Report 2011" (24 page PDF file) http://www.childinfo.org/files/Child_Mortality_Report_2011.pdf 

World Health Organization Comparative Quantification of Health Risks: Childhood and Maternal Undernutition

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