New data maps, published in the journal Nature, suggest African countries are not on track to meet a 2030 target to eliminate childhood malnutrition, set by the UN. Yet, they also show dramatic, if unevenly distributed, progress on the issue across the continent, according to BBC News. Featuring a high level of detail, based on information from individual villages, the data did show improvement in children’s health in at least one region of each nation. The studies that produced the maps also tracked child growth rates and educational attainment for women of reproductive age – factors considered closely linked to child mortality.

“Together, these are very useful indicators of where populations are doing well and where they’re being left behind,” according to Professor Simon Hay.

The maps were produced by a team led by Hay, a university of Washington global health researcher. They collected data from detailed, community-level surveys to assemble the series of 5km by 5km scale maps.

In the 15 years of data, the map revealed considerable improvement in malnutrition, particularly in southern and eastern regions of Africa, but also great disparity within nations. The researchers say that kind of precise data will help policymakers to better target their efforts.

Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan wrote, in a Nature article responding the maps, “Without good data, we’re flying blind. If you can’t see it, you can’t solve it.”

He called the improvement revealed by the maps “astonishing, especially for me, an African accustomed to international headlines depicting a continent consumed by war, famine and hunger. The Africa shown in these maps tells a different story – one of measurable, steady progress on issues long thought intractable,” also noting that “such fine-grained insight brings tremendous responsibility to act.”

“There are villages where all children are too short for their age. Across most of the Sahel, a semi-arid swath of land from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, high rates of stunting persist, with no hint of improvement.”

Such a detailed mapping of these problems in Africa is unprecedented. In the past, thorough, data-based mapping of health problems has been a crucial step to solving problems. For example, John Snow’s mapping of cholera cases in 19th century London helped to show that the disease was spreading through contaminated water. According to Annan, the malnutrition maps may prove just as instrumental in modern efforts to fight malnutrition:

“They are another tool in our arsenal. Alone, they won’t eradicate malnutrition but they will enable Africa’s leaders to act strategically.”

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