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A new scientific study finds that while nearly all nations in Africa have at least one region where children’s health is improving, not a single country is expected to end childhood malnutrition by 2030, an objective of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The study, covering 2000 to 2015, and another study on years of education, map the entire African continent in 5×5 square kilometers and were published today in the journal Nature. National and provincial maps of education and nutrition in Africa often hide inequalities at the community level, according to researchers at the UW’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).

Mapping children’s growth and basic schooling at precise local levels gives stakeholders – from clinicians and teachers to donors and policymakers – insights into where to direct resources to improve lives in Africa.

Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, in a commentary accompanying the two studies, stated it is “crucial to invest in data.”

“Data gaps undermine our ability to target resources, develop policies, and track accountability,” he wrote. “Without good data, we’re flying blind. If you can’t see it, you can’t solve it.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded the study as part of a five-year grant that will enable IHME researchers eventually to map a range of health metrics globally in 5×5-kilometers.

Education and nutrition are critical factors to one’s health and future opportunities, the studies note. Increases in basic schooling, particularly for young women, are linked to improved health for mothers and children. However, inadequate or improper nutrition, especially before age 5, is closely associated with poor health and brain development, as well as increased risks for disease and early death.

“Education, like other social investments, is closely related to people’s health and well-being, whether in Nigeria or the Netherlands,” said Dr. Simon I. Hay, senior author of both papers and Director of Geospatial Science at IHME. “For investments in global health to make sustainable progress toward health-related SDGs, additional – and intentional – efforts must address social inequalities that drive persistent health disparities.”

The studies examine average years of education for both males and females ages 15 to 49, and so-called “child growth failure,” defined as insufficient height and weight for a given age and exhibited by stunting, wasting, and underweight among children under 5. Stunting refers to insufficient height for a child’s age; underweight means insufficient weight for a child’s age; and wasting refers to insufficient weight for a child’s height and can result from a combination of stunting and underweight.

Previous estimates of basic schooling at the national and provincial levels show many African countries are expected meet SDG 4, which aims, by 2030, to reduce educational inequalities based on income, gender, and location. However, researchers found national and provincial maps could be misleading, since residents of many other communities have significantly lower levels of schooling and thus may be overlooked in education funding decisions.

SDG 2, which covers malnutrition, hunger, and food sufficiency, is likely not attainable for any African nations by 2030. The studies also call attention to the need for greater progress to achieve the UN goals, according to Dr. Hay.

“The maps not only help to reveal local ‘hot spots’ of low education levels and children’s poor nutrition, but also shine a spotlight on communities implementing successful educational and nutritional programs over the past 15 years, from which we can learn,” said Dr. Hay. “Precision public health is a new field of study which will be invaluable over the next 12 years to help effectively and equitably target resources as counties strive to meet their Sustainable Development Goals.”


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