Under-nutrition contributes to the deaths of some 5.6 million children every year, and the world has made little progress towards its target of reducing hunger by half before 2015, the UN Children's Fund said on Tuesday.
The finding, announced in a UNICEF report, was the latest evidence that the United Nations will not meet the Millennium Development Goals, a series of targets set out in 2000 to spur development and reduce poverty and hunger worldwide.
In its report, UNICEF said one of every four children under 5, including 146 million children in the developing world, is underweight.
Speaking at a news conference at the UN in New York, UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman said "One underweight and undernourished child is an individual tragedy, but multiplied by tens of millions, under-nutrition becomes a global threat to societies and to economies."
The report defines under-nutrition as the combination of hunger and repeated infectious diseases. It includes being underweight, too short, too thin and lacking in vitamins and minerals.
The most troublesome area in the world is South Asia, where 46% of children are underweight. India, Bangladesh and Pakistan account for half of the world's underweight children even though they have only 30% of the world's population of children under 5.
Veneman said that "Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has been largely stagnating, with 28% of its children underweight. Children in this region live in an almost constant state of emergency, fuelled by war, famine, and other crises."
Veneman also said that poor nutrition, particularly the lack of iodine, is diminishing the brainpower of children worldwide, sometimes by several IQ points.
In developing nations, just one in three children is breast-fed in the first six months of life, meaning they are deprived of crucial nutrients that stimulate their immune systems and protect them from respiratory infections, the report said. China has been one success story, the report said.
According to UNICEF data, China has reduced its number of underweight children by half, the main reason that numbers in the East Asia/Pacific region have dropped from 25 to 15%.
Among the world's seven regions, the Middle East/North Africa was the only one where undernutrition rates have actually increased since 1990.
That's primarily because of poor nutrition in Iraq, Sudan and Yemen, the report said.
Information for this report is provided by APTN.