While these Madagascan boys were born on the same day, the difference between them caused by chronic malnutrition is stark . Image originally published in The Independent. © Tom Maguire/Results UK


As a three-time Olympian, every four years I feel a surge of excitement when I switch on the TV and see athletes in the green and gold. I don’t mind what I’m watching – though of course I have a bias for hockey, my chosen sport – but these days, with two young children underfoot, there are fewer moments of uninterrupted viewing than there once were.

Just before last week’s Opening Ceremony Rio de Janeiro hosted another global event that’s just as important as the sport that has followed it. Nutrition for Growth (N4G) is a global summit on food security that seeks commitments from governments and businesses to ensure good nutrition among children under two and pregnant women, reduce the number of stunted children worldwide and work to save lives by increasing breastfeeding and treatment for severe acute malnutrition. I know that having the skills and stamina to reach the Olympics later in life begins with having the energy and ability to play, learn and perform in the early years. Children’s entire lives are built on the foundation of a sufficient, nutritious and varied diet – first for their mothers, and later for themselves.

I’m now a training Paediatrician at Princess Margaret Hospital for Children. Happily, the serious ill-effects of poor nutrition are not something I have to manage and treat every day in Australia, but they are an issue for some of our closest neighbours. Among the countries in our region we find some of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world. Rates of stunting, a form of irreversible impairment to growth and cognition caused by malnutrition, are at crisis levels in a number of Pacific Island countries, including Timor-Leste (50%), Papua New Guinea (44%), Solomon Islands (33%) and Kiribati (33%).

There has been striking progress in many other child malnutrition ‘hotspots’ around the globe. For example, rates of stunting in sub-Saharan Africa (37%) are steadily declining, perhaps because the issue has been given much greater focus in a region historically remembered for images of gaunt and malnourished children. Yet sadly, figures in the Pacific have not decreased since 1990.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 45% of preventable child deaths are related to malnutrition. The brains of stunted children develop more slowly and to a lesser degree, with consequences for their cognitive development and later ability to excel in – or even remain at – school. Across an entire population with high rates of stunting that means a less productive workforce, which impacts on the nation’s potential for economic advancement.

Some Pacific Island countries have begun to draft their own nutrition strategies. But these nations are often not able to devote to them the resources required for implementation, and so health workers cannot make the rapid progress that is needed to save children’s lives. And despite the region being the central focus of Australian aid, the Australian Government has not developed a strategy to articulate how malnutrition might be addressed, let alone one specifically for the Pacific. Consequently, there is far less funding in the Pacific for nutrition compared to other regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, where critical success has already been achieved.

I love watching my children play, learn and grow and I want all the children of our region to have the opportunity to reach their potential and make their contribution to our world. Australia is uniquely placed to support Pacific nations’ own solutions to their burdens of child malnutrition. The economic progress of our region depends on it, and there could be no better target for our compassion and innovation than the uncounted number of children suffering illnesses and deaths that are entirely preventable.

Dr Rachel Dwyer OAM (formerly Imison) was goal-keeper for the Hockeyroos from 1997 to 2008, and won a gold medal with the team at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 as well as silver at the world championships and two Commonwealth gold medals. She is now a member of the Royal Australian College of Physicians, Paediatric and Child Health division at Princess Margaret Hospital for Children and lives in Perth with her husband and two children. 

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