World a ‘virtual tinderbox’ for catastrophic levels of severe malnutrition in children - UNICEF

Soaring food prices and pandemic-fuelled budget cuts set to drive up cases of severe malnutrition while support to provide life-saving treatment is dropping down.

18 May 2022
© UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Antoine Raab
UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Antoine Raab

NEW YORK, 17 May 2022 The number of children with severe wasting was on the rise even before war in Ukraine plunged the world further into a global food crisis. Today UNICEF’s new Child Alert warns that it’s getting worse.

Severe wasting: An overlooked child survival emergency shows that despite rising levels of severe wasting in children and rising costs for life-saving treatment, global financing is not keeping pace – a disturbing trend which threatens the lives of millions of children.

Severe wasting – where children are too thin for their height – is the most immediate, visible and life-threatening form of malnutrition. Worldwide, at least 13.6 million children under five suffer from severe wasting, resulting in 1 in 5 deaths among this age group.

South Asia remains the ‘epicentre’ of severe wasting, where roughly 1 in 22 children is severely wasted, three times as high as sub-Saharan Africa. In Cambodia, 10 per cent of children suffer from wasting, which is directly tied to their family’s vulnerable socio-economic status. These households are less likely to have access to clean drinking water and safe hygiene and sanitation conditions, and more likely to have sub-optimal infant and young child feeding (IYCF) practices, all of which contribute to malnutrition. Further, the ongoing financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic create even higher risks of food insecurity and malnutrition for the most vulnerable households.

Compounding the global nutrition crisis, at least 10 million severely wasted children – or every 2 in 3 worldwide– do not have access to the most effective treatment for wasting: ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF). UNICEF warns that a combination of global shocks to food security– the war in Ukraine, economies struggling with pandemic recovery, and persistent drought conditions in some countries due to climate change – are creating conditions for a significant increase in global levels of severe wasting.

Meanwhile, the price of ready-to-use therapeutic food is projected to increase by up to 16 per cent over the next six months due to a sharp rise in the cost of raw ingredients, while shipping and delivery costs are also expected to remain high.

The report goes on to warn that aid for wasting remains woefully low and is predicted to decline sharply in the coming years, with little hope of recovering to pre-pandemic levels before 2028. Global aid spent on wasting amounts to just 2.8 per cent of the total health sector ODA (Official Development Assistance) and 0.2 per cent of total ODA spending.

In Cambodia, the funds to fight severe wasting are far from sufficient to cover the rising needs. The National Roadmap for Child Wasting estimates a cost of $25 million to cover the needs for responding to malnutrition crises in the next three years.  However, 69 per cent ($17.2 million) of the funds needed to fully implement the roadmap have yet to be secured.

“Nutrition plays a crucial role in early childhood development and has a profound impact on a child’s ability to survive, grow, learn and thrive”, said Foroogh Foyouzat, UNICEF Representative in Cambodia. “UNICEF is working with the Royal Government of Cambodia to prioritize wasting in national policies and budget, in particular advocating for sustained financing of RUTF to treat severe childhood malnutrition. We are also supporting the Government to strengthen community outreach and interventions, so cases of severe wasting are identified early, and caregivers are both aware of health and nutrition services in their area and engaged to use them to prevent malnutrition.”

To address this global crisis, UNICEF is calling on governments, donors, and civil society organizations around the world to prioritize immediate budget allocations for therapeutic food interventions and treatment for child wasting and ensure funding for the long-term needs of the most vulnerable children.



Notes to Editors


About RUTF

Ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) paste is a lipid-based energy dense, micronutrient paste, using a mixture of peanuts, sugar, oil, and milk powder, packaged in individual sachets. UNICEF, the global leader in RUTF procurement, purchases and distributes an estimated 75-80 per cent of the world's supply from over 20 manufacturers located across the world.


About ODA

Official development assistance (ODA) is government aid that promotes and specifically targets the economic development and welfare of developing countries. The Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) adopted ODA as the main instrument of foreign aid in 1969 and it remains the main source of financing for development aid. ODA data is collected, verified and made publicly available by the OECD.

Media contacts

Rudina Vojvoda
Chief of Communication
UNICEF Cambodia
Tel: +85523260204;ext=434
Bunly Meas
Communication Specialist
UNICEF Cambodia
Tel: +85523260204;ext=435


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