By: Bill Frist, M.D.
One single public health crisis accounts for nearly half (45%) of all child deaths under age five. Every 4 seconds, a person dies from this cause – approximately 21,000 every day. And shockingly, nearly one in nine people globally is affected. What is this epidemic that has taken so many lives? That has wreaked havoc on so many families? It’s want of a most basic need: we still have 795 million people worldwide who suffer from various forms of malnutrition and undernourishment.
This is not a complex disease where we need to develop new treatments, build new clinics and health infrastructure, or educate patients on prevention and medication adherence. But it is a health challenge that requires bold leadership and the commitment of greater resources from developing and developed countries. The United States should lead the way, and our next President has a unique opportunity to mobilize the global community around this critical issue.
Next spring, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will host the newly-elected U.S. President and the other Group of Seven leaders for the annual G7 meeting in Sicily, Italy. The last time Italy hosted the G7, at L’Aquila in 2009, global food security was a top priority for the summit. Shortly after the 2009 G7 meeting in Italy, President Obama launched the signature development initiative of his Presidency, Feed the Future. While the billion-dollar a year Feed the Future program has achieved significant progress in combating hunger and promoting agriculture development in developing countries, there is a remaining and pressing need for greater U.S. leadership.
Earlier this year, the World Bank released a new global nutrition investment framework that provides a straightforward financing road map for achieving the 2025 nutrition goals on stunting, breastfeeding, anemia, and wasting that were adopted by the global community at the 2012 World Health Assembly, and affirmed within the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals adopted last year.
The World Bank study found that over the next ten years, an additional $70 billion in nutrition-specific financing is needed, for a total of $109 billion from 2016-2025. Such an investment would yield tremendous returns: 3.7 million child lives saved, at least 65 million fewer stunted children, 265 million fewer women suffering from anemia, and 105 million more children exclusively breastfed compared to the 2015 baseline.
The investment framework first and foremost calls on developing countries to lead the charge in committing new resources to combat malnutrition. Not only are country governments responding to this call, but we also have seen regional leadership, most notably with the recent launch of the African Leaders for Nutrition initiative, which was established by African Development Bank President, and former Nigerian Agriculture Minister, Akinwume Adesina.
In Africa, 58 million children are stunted—they weigh too little for their age—and 13.9 million weigh too little for their size, which is referred to as wasting. Africa accounts for 20 of the 24 countries with stunting rates of over 40%. Furthermore, 22 of the 34 countries that collectively account for 90% of the world’s stunting are in Africa. Stunting can even begin in the womb when the expectant mother suffers chronic malnutrition, and doesn’t just refer to height and weight, it impairs a child’s brain development, weakens the immune system, and increases risk for serious diseases later in life. This irreversible but easily preventable condition has been estimated to reduce a hard-hit country’s GDP by as much as 12%.
In response to these daunting malnutrition statistics, the newly-formed African Leaders for Nutrition announced the development of a Nutrition Accountability Scorecard, which is country-owned and will focus on monitoring progress on country and regional level nutrition specific investments and results.
Donor countries also have an important role to play, especially the United States. The World Bank’s global nutrition investment framework is accompanied by an analysis that provides donors a roadmap for what they will need to commit to achieve the global nutrition goals. According to this analysis, the U.S. should increase its investment by $382 million per year for a total annual investment of $677 million per year for nutrition specific programs from 2016-2025.
While these can seem like big numbers, they represent an extremely small funding increase within the larger U.S. global health and foreign assistance budgets – and promise a meaningful return on investment. There is abundant evidence of the tremendous impact achieved by U.S.-led global health investments. During my time in the U.S. Senate, we increased U.S. funding for global HIV/AIDS from a few hundred million dollars per year to the current level of $6 billion per year. These investments have saved millions of lives, and increased the distribution of AIDS drugs in Africa from a baseline of 50,000 patients in 2003 to more than 10 million today.
We responded so boldly on HIV/AIDS, because we viewed the disease as a health emergency that could take the lives of tens of millions and destroy the fabric and stability of communities, countries, and even regions. I believe we must view the global challenge of malnutrition through the same lens of urgency. If we don’t turn the tide against global malnutrition, we will suffer the consequences of millions of lives lost unnecessarily and a generation of mothers and children in the developing world that never achieve their God-given potential.
The next U.S. President has a unique opportunity to make global nutrition a top priority for the U.S. and for our international partners, perhaps with the first big moment coming at the G7 in Italy next May. Increasing U.S. investments in global nutrition by $350 million per year over the next decade would be one of the smartest and most cost-effective decisions that our next President could make upon assuming office.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, MD is a cardiothoracic surgeon and founder of Hope Through Healing Hands.
This article originally appeared on The Hill.