Childhood stunting: a global perspective.

Mercedes de Onis and Francesco Branca

Childhood stunting is the best overall indicator of children’s well-being and an accurate reflection of social inequalities. Stunting is the most prevalent form of child malnutrition with an estimated 161 million children worldwide in 2013 falling below 2 SD from the length-for-age/height-for-age World Health Organization Child Growth Standards median. Many more millions suffer from some degree of growth faltering as the entire length-for-age/ height-for-age z-score distribution is shifted to the left indicating that all children, and not only those falling below a specific cutoff, are affected. Despite global consensus on how to define and measure it, stunting often goes unrecognized in communities where short stature is the norm as linear growth is not routinely assessed in primary health care settings and it is difficult to visually recognize it. Growth faltering often begins in utero and continues for at least the first 2 years of post-natal life. Linear growth failure serves as a marker of multiple pathological disorders associated with increased morbidity and mortality, loss of physical growth potential, reduced neurodevelopmental and cognitive function and an elevated risk of chronic disease in adulthood. The severe irreversible physical and neurocognitive damage that accompanies stunted growth poses a major threat to human development. Increased awareness of stunting’s magnitude and devastating consequences has resulted in its being identified as a major global health priority and the focus of international attention at the highest levels with global targets set for 2025 and beyond. The challenge is to prevent linear growth failure while keeping child overweight and obesity at bay.

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