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Working together for the Best Start in Life

A new social-impact initiative launched in rural western China last month aims to reduce stunting in children by up to 80 per cent by 2022.

05 Feb 20194 minute read

At no other time of life is the right diet as important as it is during the first 1,000 days. The correct nutrition at this stage of our development is vital to ensure we grow up healthy and prepared for our future.

However, for millions of children around the world, malnutrition during this crucial period is common. As a result, they suffer from stunting. Not only will they be restricted in height and weight, but their brains will only reach 50 per cent of normal development.

The effects of a lack of nutrients at this stage of life – defined as from in utero (in the womb) until two years of age – are irreversible. The sad reality is that stunted children will never reach their true potential.

Embracing the challenge

Many countries are now addressing the issue of early malnutrition, including China, which has established the National Nutrition Plan 2017-2030 as part of its ambitious Healthy China 2030 public health programme.

And because malnourishment is particularly prevalent in remote rural areas, where poverty is rife, the plan to tackle stunting aligns with China’s national priority to alleviate that problem, too.

The issue of child nutrition is important to RB, particularly since its 2017 acquisition of Mead Johnson Nutrition (MJN), a company that has been operating in China for 25 years.

So, RB has taken this opportunity to launch Best Start in Life, a new £5.5-million social-impact initiative, partnering with the China Children and Teenagers’ Fund (CCTF) – one of the country’s leading non-profit organisations. The scheme will focus on improving children’s wellbeing and preventing stunting and malnutrition in poor rural areas.

Adelaide Gu, vice president, Health Greater China, says: “We’re excited and proud to be working on this important initiative. We believe good nutrition in the first 1,000 days supports lifelong health.

“Through nutrition intervention and education,” she continues, “this project will directly bring a meaningful and positive change to 10,000 pregnant women and their 10,000-plus babies in poverty-stricken areas in China. And it will generate further impact on tens of millions of Chinese families to ensure the best start for the next generation.”

A long-term vision

Establishing the programme has not come without challenges. “The greatest one is gaining acceptance and trust from local pregnant women and new mothers on the project,” explains Gu. “What if they don’t want any changes? What if they are concerned about our intervention? What if they agree to join but actually don’t follow our suggested actions?”

She acknowledges that it will take time for many women to see the value of the scheme. “The way they conceive, deliver, feed and raise a child hasn’t changed much for generations in these areas,” she explains. “Some of them are undernourished and they don’t see it as an issue. But as time goes on, when they get closer to the programme, know more and understand better – particularly in the second year when they will see the positive changes in themselves, their children and the people around them – I believe they will become proactive supporters and ambassadors of the programme and encourage their peers to join.”

Inspiring change, now and for the future

Overall, the aim of the partnership, which is initially being rolled out in the remote western regions of China, is to reduce the prevalence of stunting by 50-80 per cent by 2022.

This will be achieved, in part, by providing vital advice and nutrition packs for pregnant mothers, monitoring their health, working with rural hospitals and training up to 5,000 professionals in local maternal and child healthcare centres, and encouraging exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life.

Sandra Hennessy, social impact and partnerships manager at RB, says the programme will be vitally important in helping to significantly reduce stunting in certain areas of rural China. “It will have a positive impact on tens of thousands of Chinese families nationwide,” she says.

“RB hopes to establish a successful and sustainable model for governments and businesses to replicate,” she continues, “to resolve the malnutrition and stunting issue in China and beyond.”

Adelaide Gu adds: “It’s such an important scheme. We will be making a positive impact – not only on women and babies now, but also on future generations.”