Women of child-bearing age (especially pregnant and lactating women), infants and young children are in the most nutritionally-vulnerable stages of the life cycle. Maternal malnutrition is a major predisposing factor for morbidity and mortality among African women. The causes include inadequate food intake, poor nutritional quality of diets, frequent infections and short inter-pregnancy intervals. Evidence for maternal malnutrition is provided by the fact that between 5 and 20% of African women have a low BMI as a result of chronic hunger. Across the continent the prevalence of anaemia ranges from 21 to 80%, with similarly high values for both vitamin A and Zn deficiency levels. Another challenge is the high rates of HIV infection, which compromise maternal nutritional status. The consequences of poor maternal nutritional status are reflected in low pregnancy weight gain and high infant and maternal morbidity and mortality. Suboptimal infant feeding practices, poor quality of complementary foods, frequent infections and micronutrient deficiencies have largely contributed to the high mortality among infants and young children in the region. Feeding children whose mothers are infected with HIV continues to remain an issue requiring urgent attention. There are successful interventions to improve the nutrition of mothers, infants and young children, which will be addressed. Interventions to improve the nutrition of infants and young children, particularly in relation to the improvement of micronutrient intakes of young children, will be discussed. The recent release by WHO of new international growth standards for assessing the growth and nutritional status of children provides the tool for early detection of growth faltering and for appropriate intervention.
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