Call to action on global nutrition

The United States has shown courageous leadership over the last decade on global health. Earlier this year, Congress once again voted to protect the budget for those critical investments that we make to save lives, prevent the transmission of diseases and end preventable child deaths.  During my time in Congress, we fought hard for life-saving global health programs.  We were able to work together with both Democrat and Republican presidents to launch and implement historic health initiatives in priority areas such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, vaccines, and clean water.  These programs have saved millions of lives, and proven that health is the best currency for peace.

But even as funding for global health soared, foundational programs promoting maternal and child nutrition were largely overlooked.  Yet the need for greater leadership and investments in nutrition could not be more clear.  Across the world today, 162 million children—1 in 4 children under 5 years of age—are physically and developmentally stunted, and 80 percent of those live in just 14 countries.  The combination of physical limitations and reduced cognitive development directly linked to poor nutrition sentences these children to lives of unfulfilled potential, and it creates a severe drain on their communities and countries.  A 2013 report from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that the social and economic costs of malnutrition are unconscionably high, amounting to as much as $US3.5 trillion per year or $US500 per person globally.

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Thanks to U.S. leadership on global health, child death rates have been cut in half over the last 20 years from 12 million to 6 million per year. With continued investments and unwavering leadership, child death rates could be cut in half again over the next decade. We must not save these children, only to abandon them in their most crucial developmental years.

Providing the right nutrients is fundamental to health, particularly during the first 1,000 days from a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.  In the 2012 Copenhagen Consensus report, an expert panel of economists concluded that every $1 invested in nutrition generates as much as $138 in better health and increased productivity. Yet despite the severe costs associated with malnutrition and the extraordinary returns on nutrition investments, the world spends less than 1 percent of development aid on life saving, basic nutrition solutions.

The tide is turning. In the 2014 budget, Congress provided a funding boost to the global nutrition account, signaling strong bipartisan support to combat malnutrition.  President Obama has committed to developing a global nutrition strategy, and USAID Administrator Dr. Raj Shah, who has taken the lead on this initiative, just announced the completion of that strategy and the effort underway to develop a coordination plan across all agencies and programs that contribute to improved nutritional outcomes.   

Moreover, in June 2013 at the Nutrition for Growth event in London, the U.S. joined other world leaders and signed a global agreement that will boost global prosperity, prevent millions of infant deaths, and unlock greater human potential by working in partnership with developing countries to tackle malnutrition. This commitment is reflected in the Global Nutrition for Growth Compact, which has been endorsed by over 90 stakeholders.

Governments from Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) countries and their development partners are also taking nutrition seriously. A total of 50 countries have joined the SUN movement to date, committing to driving forward their national nutrition plans at scale.

These plans and commitments are encouraging, but we must sustain and build upon the momentum that has been created over the last year on global nutrition. The president and Congress must remain resolute in their support for strong global health and nutrition funding in the FY15 budget and in prioritizing nutrition as a critical pillar in our foreign assistance investments.  They must work together to oversee the implementation of the new strategy, and to provide the increased resources that are necessary to reach the millions of children who continue to suffer needlessly from poor nutrition.

Investments in maternal and child nutrition build the foundation for the next generation to survive and thrive, and serve as a shining example of U.S. global leadership at its best.  

Frist, an acclaimed heart transplant surgeon, served Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2007. He was Senate Majority Leader from 2003 to 2007. He is chairman of Hope Through Healing Hands and Tennessee SCORE, a professor of surgery and author of six books. Learn more about his work at BillFrist.com.

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