UCL News


Press cutting: 200 million under-fives are 'intellectually stunted'

5 January 2007

At least 200 million children under the age of five currently fail to reach their full intellectual potential, a new study of developing countries estimates.


Researchers blame the problem on malnutrition and inadequate cognitive and social stimulation. They also stress that many of these children could achieve their full potential with the help of relatively simple, low-cost programmes. ...

[Professor Sally] Grantham-McGregor's team [from the UCL Institute of Child Health] obtained recent information about poverty and height statistics from UNICEF and the World Health Organisation respectively. The team extrapolated the data to find the number of children under age five who would have failed to achieve normal cognitive development.

Of the 559 million children under five years in developing countries, they estimate that 219 million fall into this category - more than the entire child population of North America and Europe put together. Grantham-McGregor believes that the final number put forth by the study is a conservative estimate. ...

Researchers say that malnutrition, such as iodine and iron deficiency, is one of the main reasons children fail to achieve their learning potential. Another problem is that their parents fail to engage them in activities that stimulate positive brain development.

Experts stress that both issues require simultaneous attention. "I think it's misguided to focus on only one of those problems," says Grantham-McGregor.

"It's critical to improve the environment of these kids so they don't suffer deficits in cognitive development," she adds. ...

"The parents don't realise that their input can make a difference," Grantham-McGregor says. "They really need demonstrations showing how to engage their children."

The new study estimates that these disadvantaged children end up earning at least 20 per cent less than their peers who had a healthier start to life. Providing these children with a more nurturing environment early in life could help prevent the cycle of poverty, say researchers. ...

Experts say that helping children around the world at an early stage will enable the youngsters to take full advantage of educational opportunities. "Investing in programmes in children under the age of five will be both more effective and far cheaper than leaving it till later," says Grantham-McGregor.

New Scientist