Health Watch: Children at Risk . . .; Scientists Have Proved That Poor Nutrition and Poverty Are Two of the Main Factors Leading to Death in Infants and the Problem Is Not Just Confined to under Developed Countries. Children in Advanced Countries, They Say, Are Also Vulnerable as Junk Food Becomes an Ever Growing Part of the Modern Diet

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Byline: SANDRA CHAPMAN

Food is the foundation of good health and disease prevention. But not just any food.

It is now widely recognised that dietary factors account directly or indirectly for six out of every 10 deaths in infancy and childhood.

Children have always been vulnerable from the day they're born and while many of them may be surviving the early days as the result of better care at birth, their lives are still something of a lottery with many obstacles in the way of their longer term survival.

Professor Benjamin Caballero from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, speaking at an International Congress of Nutrition in Vienna last week said evidence was mounting that 'chronic malnutrition' in early life is directly associated with reduced school performance, and ultimately with increased disease and mortality risks in adult life.

Similarly, he told the 4,000 strong international audience, it has been found that early micronutrient deficiencies (iron and calcium) for example, may have a sustained impact on the health of adolescents and adults.

This problem, he says, has to be at the forefront of our efforts concerning childhood nutrition.

One of the important findings of the last decade is that of critical periods for nutritional vulnerability during development.

He says: "Several studies have shown that even moderate single-nutrient deficiencies may have a lasting impact in adult life, particularly if they occur during critical periods of childhood development.

"One obvious example is that of calcium. Marginal calcium intake during childhood in girls may result in a deficient accumulation of bone mineral by the end of the growth period, resulting in a substantial increase in the risk of osteoporosis after the menopause.

"Similarly, some data suggest that iron deficiency in early years, even if corrected, may result in persistently lower scores in psychomotor tests years later.''

Dr Michael Murphy of Harvard Medical School, Boston demonstrated to the audience that hunger is a significant threat to children's health in many sectors of developed country populations.

He advocates a school breakfast programme for children attending school in deprived areas of the city. In one area where it was tried, the result was improved school grades and attendance. The programme is now being piloted nationally across America.

The impact of social and cultural factors on food consumption in modern society concerns the scientists. For example, the desire to be thin is depriving many young girls of vital food in the growing stages.

This contrasts with the passion for junk food, most of which is low in nutrients and which is taking over from proper food. …