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UNICEF sees alarming trend in Africa child nutrition

Written by: Staff

JOHANNESBURG, May 3 (Reuters) More children in eastern and southern Africa are undernourished now than in 1990, showing an alarming trend as wars, AIDS and drought plague vast stretches of the world's poorest continent, UNICEF said.

In part of a global report on child nutrition, the UN Children's Fund said yesterday only one country in the region, Botswana, was making acceptable progress toward meeting a U.N. goal of halving the number of underweight children by 2015.

''Too many children in this region are trapped in a cycle of poverty,'' UNICEF senior advisor Bertie Mendis said at a Johannesburg launch of the African segment of UNICEF's report.

From the war-torn countries of the Horn of Africa to the economic powerhouse of South Africa, many children are failing to get adequate nutrition with the situation worsening in real terms in 9 of the 17 African countries analysed, UNICEF said.

It attributed the crisis in large part to sub-Saharan Africa's HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is exacerbating the effects of regular droughts to cut food production and limit parents' ability to care for their children.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 26 million of the 40 million people infected with HIV/AIDS worldwide. In some countries in the region such as Botswana and Swaziland, more than a third of adults are believed to be infected with the virus.

''The profound impact of HIV/AIDS in the region inevitably affects its nutritional position,'' the report said, adding that recent studies showing increasing levels of underweight children in relatively prosperous, urban areas ''suggest a new vulnerability in areas once thought to be better off.'' The report said more than half the children in Ethiopia were underweight, while in Burundi and Madagascar the percentage was at around 40 percent of children under the age of five.

UNICEF said that despite having one of the world's highest rates of HIV/AIDS, Botswana still managed to reduce the percentage of underweight children to 13 percent in 2000 from 17 percent in 1996.

This showed concerted government action to provide ''safety nets'' could work in an African context, the report added.

With diamond riches and a relatively small population Botswana is better positioned than most African countries to intervene. But UNICEF said basic steps such as encouraging early and exclusive breast-feeding and providing Vitamin A supplements could have dramatic benefits.

''The interventions are simple, they are feasible and they are cheap,'' said Saba Mebrathu, a regional nutrition advisor for UNICEF. ''All that is needed is the political will.'' Reuters CH VP0900

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