JOHANNESBURG, March 18 (Xinhua) — With 27 percent of South Africa’s children under five years of age stunted or affected by stunting, the National Department of Health warned it was not on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) target to reduce stunting by 2025.

“In my view, we are not on target, if you look at the past 20 years, the stunting has not improved, so if we don’t do something drastically, then I don’t think we will meet the target,” Ann Behr, deputy director at the Department of Health, focusing on child, youth and school health, told Xinhua in an interview via Zoom. According to the SDGs, by 2025, the internationally agreed reduction targets on stunting and wasting in children under five years of age should be achieved. A United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report released in 2019 said South African children under five years of age face the triple burden of malnutrition — undernutrition, hidden hunger, and being overweight. According to the report, 27.4 percent of South Africa’s children under five years of age are stunted, which means they are too short for their height.

Stunting can be attributed to several causes, and a collaborative approach was required to reduce it. Even though an update hasn’t been released, given the impact of the pandemic on poverty, Behr believes stunting has increased in recent years. “I think the stunting rate has increased due to the impact of COVID-19,” she said. To address stunting and nutrition issues in the country, she said a multi-pronged approach was necessary. She cited high diarrhea rates, HIV infections, and inadequate maternal care as factors contributing to stunting. “When children start eating complementary foods, only 23 percent of children meet criteria for a minimum acceptable diet,” she said. “To address stunting, we have to address all these factors.”

Christine Muhigana, the UNICEF representative in South Africa, emphasized the importance of addressing the root causes of stunting to tackle the problem. “Malnutrition and stunting have many more causes than revenue of a given family or the food children get in school. The mothers’ nutritional status has a very important effect on the survival, growth, and development of a child,” she said. The first step to addressing malnutrition and stunting begins at conception as it is important to feed a proper diet to a mother during her pregnancy and after the baby is born. “The causes of stunting include poor access to essential health services. When a child is ill, he or she needs to be quickly cared for at a healthcare center. There needs to be clean water at the home, there needs to be adequate sanitation because these can also cause illness,” she said.

A holistic approach was needed to fight stunting and parents’ and children’s nutritional status should be prioritized as part of short-term measures. “If we need to see meaningful progress, we need to look at food, we need to look at health, we need to look at water and sanitation and make sure the child’s nutrition is the center of everything that these systems work on,” she said. “We must comprehensively prevent malnutrition in all its forms.” Her advice is to pay attention to young mothers to ensure that they are equipped, resourced, and educated when they give birth to their children.