BY MELINDA GATES
Like all mothers everywhere, Tariko Harriso has big dreams for her children. Her daughter Bethlehem is only two years old, and Tariko is already hoping she’ll be a doctor someday. But Tariko is doing more than just dreaming about Bethlehem’s future. She’s also taking actions to make sure her daughter achieves her full potential – starting with ensuring that she has the nutrition she needs to grow and thrive.
In many places, we take the availability of nutritious food for granted. But for families like Tariko’s, malnutrition is a constant worry.
According to the medical journal The Lancet, malnutrition is the root cause of nearly half of all deaths of children under five each year. And for those undernourished children who do survive, about one-third suffer from stunted growth, which often compromises neurodevelopment and ultimately impacts their ability to learn, work, and earn a living.
The 1,000 days between the start of a mother’s pregnancy and her baby’s second birthday are an especially crucial time to protect against these dangers. If babies don’t get the proper nutrition during those 1,000 days, their brains will never fully develop. After that, the devastating truth is that the damage can never be undone – no matter how many vaccines they get or how much time or money is invested in their education.
The good news is that solutions are within reach. Today, we know more about combating malnutrition than ever before. And we’ve identified interventions that work, like fortifying food with essential vitamins and minerals and encouraging mothers to breastfeed their babies immediately after birth and continue breastfeeding them exclusively for at least six months. In fact, one in four child deaths could be prevented simply by scaling up existing interventions. Improving breastfeeding practices alone could save the lives of 800,000 children annually and put millions on the pathway to a better future.
Already, we’ve seen that progress is possible. One innovative initiative, Alive & Thrive, is working in Ethiopia (where Bethlehem and Tariko live), Bangladesh, and Vietnam to ensure that mothers and babies are getting the nourishment they need, especially during those crucial 1,000 days. Even after just two years, early results from this initiative already demonstrated a dramatic increase in breastfeeding rates. In Vietnam, breastfeeding rates in program areas increased from 19 to 63%.
At the Gates Foundation, we’re committed to making sure proper nutrition reaches every mother and child, everywhere. One year ago, we joined world leaders from government, science, and business for a summit called Nutrition for Growth, hosted by the UK government, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), and the Government of Brazil. At the summit, we joined more than 90 other signatories to sign an agreement fight malnutrition globally. The goals laid out in the agreement are clear and ambitious: to reach at least 500million pregnant women and children under two with proven nutrition interventions; to reduce the number of children under five stunted by at least 20million; and to save the lives of at least 1.7million children under five – all by 2020.
To help achieve these goals, our foundation pledged to invest $863million in nutrition programs by 2020. We fully intend to keep this promise, but it’s important that we continue to hold ourselves and each other accountable for progress. The next opportunity will be in 2016, when the Government of Brazil will organize a follow up summit that will coincide with their hosting of the Olympics.
Whether Bethlehem decides she wants to be a doctor one day is up to her. But we all have a stake in creating a world where every child has the opportunity to grow up to reach his or her full potential. If we want strong, thriving communities tomorrow, we need to stand with families like Tariko’s and Bethlehem’s today.
(Melinda Gates is the Co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – This article was first published by http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/)