Childhood undernutrition, defined as underweight or low-weight-for-age, is the leading risk factor contributing to the global burden of disease, say researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the UN-backed World Health Organisation.
The researchers said they believe that strategies to prevent undernutrition should be one of the top priorities in the global effort to reduce child mortality.
"Malnutrition does not have to be severe to have a significant impact on child health and survival," explained lead author Laura E. Caulfield, an associate professor with the Bloomberg School's Center for Human Nutrition. "Our analysis shows that even children who were small, but whose weight would not classify them as malnourished, were twice as likely to die as children in our reference group," she said.
Observers suggest that a more liberal global trade regime between developed and developing countries might trickle down to the 850 million people currently hungry in the world.
World trade talks last September in Cancun, Mexico failed as the developed and developing countries were unable to see to eye to eye. Hopes are high that re-ignited talks, set for the ministerial conference in July 2005, will provide an improved - and essentially fairer - trade strategy and dealings for the developed world.
Europe's food industry - represented by the Confederation of Food and Industries - has long backed moves towards trade liberalisation and has encouraged a free market.
The EU has been heavily criticised for its protectionist market policy on a wide range of foodstuffs that has led to trade barriers and subsidised regimes. But in a new plan outlined recently by Pascal Lamy, the European Commissioner for Trade said Europe was prepared to break the barriers and knock the subsidies.
The EU spends some €43 billion a year on its farm policy, nearly half of its entire annual budget.
The recent analysis by WHO and the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health confirms earlier research that showed that 55 per cent of all child deaths were due to undernutrition. However, the new analysis went further. It examined whether the risk of dying due to being underweight varies by cause of death.
Using data from 10 large cohort studies from sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia with information on weight-for-age z score and survival or death by cause, researchers calculated the mortality rates by anthropometric status and cause of death (including diarrhea, pneumonia, malaria and measles) in each study.
The study's authors concluded that undernutrition is responsible for 60 per cent of deaths as a result of diarrhea, 52 per cent of deaths as a result of pneumonia, 45 per cent of deaths as a result of measles and 57 per cent of deaths as a result of malaria worldwide. "Rates of undernutrition are not declining quickly enough,"said Dr. Caulfield.
The study appears in the 1 July, 2004, issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.