Stunting is one of the biggest obstacles to human development.

Children are considered stunted when they are short for their age by a specific amount (2 standard deviations below the global average height). But height per se is not the key issue. Rather, stunting is a proxy for overall physical and neurocognitive underdevelopment. Stunting affects 162 million children aged less than 5 years worldwide.

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Importance of Stunting

A global problem

When children are sick, malnourished, or exposed to an unhealthy environment for a prolonged period of time, they may become stunted. Stunted children tend to be sicker than others because they don’t always respond to vaccination, they can’t absorb nutrients properly, and they have weaker immune systems. They also tend to be cognitively impaired, which means they are less likely to succeed in school or become fully productive members of the workforce. Finally, as they age, they tend to be susceptible to chronic metabolic diseases.

If we were able to design a package of interventions to address stunting, it would change the lives of hundreds of millions of people and promote economic development in low-income countries across the world. But to do that, we need to understand the very complex processes of healthy birth, growth, and development.

Typically, the global health community has tried to address the causes of stunting one by one. Some researchers focus on nutrition, others on infection, others on sanitation, and so on. However, it is clear that all these factors interact in complex ways to lead to stunting. Trying to isolate single causes of a multi-causal condition has squandered time and money—and led to few answers. However, we believe a new approach can help us uncover powerful solutions.

Prevalence of stunting, height for age (% of children under 5)

Prevalence of stunting is the percentage of children under age 5 whose height for age is more than two standard deviations below the median for the international reference population ages 0-59 months. For children up to two years old height is measured by recumbent length. For older children height is measured by stature while standing. The data are based on the WHO’s new child growth standards released in 2006.

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