Inspiring Action Against Undernutrition

AKU research has helped push undernutrition to the top of the global health agenda.

Support for reducing undernutrition has surged in recent years, with governments and donors pledging US$ 23 billion to prevent malnourishment for 20 million children. The Aga Khan University has helped spark that transformation, through its contributions to The La​ncet’s seminal Maternal and Child Nutrition Series of 2008 and 2013, which highlighted the lifelong consequences of poor nutrition during the first 1,000 days of life.

Undernutrition is especially prevalent in Pakistan, where the rate of stunting – being too short for one’s age, the main indicator of undernutrition – has been more than 40 per cent for decades. As AKU’s Dr Shehla Zaidi and fellow researchers wrote in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper: “Stunted height means stunted immune systems, stunted brain development and stunted overall life chances.”

AKU has responded to the crisis by helping to lay the groundwork for coordinated efforts to improve nutrition nationally. In 2011, the University conducted Pakistan’s first National Nutrition Survey in a decade, with the support of UNICEF and the governments of Pakistan, Australia and the United Kingdom. The survey’s results garnered substantial publicity and prompted numerous calls for action. More recently, they were the subject of an in-depth analysis in The Lancet.

In 2013, Drs Shehla Zaidi and Zulfiqar A. Bhutta followed up on the survey by joining with researchers at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex to publish a report on The Political Economy of Undernutrition in Pakistan. That same year, a dozen AKU researchers contributed to an issue of the Institute’s flagship publication, the IDS Bulletin, focused on nutrition in Pakistan. Their work highlighted the need for a multi-sectoral approach that addresses political challenges, including “the missing constituency for nutrition within the political and bureaucratic elites, civil society groups and the electorate.”

The University also designed and oversaw Afghanistan’s 2013 National Nutrition Survey, the country’s first in a decade, providing training to data-collection teams, monitoring the survey’s progress to assure the quality of the data and analysing biological samples. The results will be essential for any systematic attempt to tackle undernutrition in Afghanistan and are already being used for planning.