An additional 6.7 million children under 5 could suffer from wasting this year due to COVID-19

As part of its Reimagine campaign, UNICEF calls for accelerated action to prevent and treat malnutrition caused by pandemic as humanitarian community appeals for $2.4 billion to improve maternal and child nutrition

29 July 2020
Ethiopia
UNICEFEthiopia/2018/Ayene

An additional 6.7 million children under the age of five could suffer from wasting – and therefore become dangerously undernourished – in 2020 as a result of the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF warned today.

According to an analysis published in The Lancet, 80 per cent of these children would be from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Over half would be from South Asia alone.

“It’s been seven months since the first COVID-19 cases were reported and it is increasingly clear that the repercussions of the pandemic are causing more harm to children than the disease itself,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “Household poverty and food insecurity rates have increased. Essential nutrition services and supply chains have been disrupted. Food prices have soared. As a result, the quality of children’s diets has gone down and malnutrition rates will go up.”

Wasting is a life-threatening form of malnutrition, which makes children too thin and weak, and puts them at greater risk of dying, poor growth, development and learning. According to UNICEF, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 47 million children were already wasted in 2019. Without urgent action, the global number of children suffering from wasting could reach almost 54 million over the course of the year. This would bring global wasting to levels not seen this millennium.  

The Lancet analysis finds that the prevalence of wasting among children under the age of five could increase by 14.3 per cent in low- and middle-income countries this year, due to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19. Such an increase in child malnutrition would translate into over 10,000 additional child deaths per month with over 50 per cent of these deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.

The estimated increase in child wasting is only the tip of the iceberg, UN agencies warn.  COVID-19 will also increase other forms of malnutrition in children and women, including stunting, micronutrient deficiencies and overweight and obesity as a result of poorer diets and the disruption of nutrition services. Over 250 million children globally are missing the full benefits of vitamin A supplementation due to COVID-19.

In a commentary to The Lancet report, also released today, the heads of UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization warned that the COVID-19 pandemic is undermining nutrition across the world particularly in low- and middle-income countries, with the worst consequences being borne by young children. More children and women are becoming malnourished due to the deteriorating quality of their diets, the interruption of nutrition services, and the shocks created by the pandemic.

Humanitarian agencies immediately need USD $2.4 billion to protect maternal and child nutrition in the most vulnerable countries from now until the end of the year. The heads of the four United Nations agencies appeal to governments, the public, donors and the private sector to protect children’s right to nutrition by:

  • Safeguarding access to nutritious, safe and affordable diets
  • Investing decisively in support for maternal and child nutrition
  • Re-activating and scaling up services for the early detection and treatment of child wasting
  • Maintaining the provision of nutritious and safe school meals and
  • Expanding social protection to safeguard access to nutritious diets

UNICEF’s Reimagine campaign aims to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from becoming a lasting crisis for children, especially the most vulnerable children. Through the campaign, UNICEF is issuing an urgent appeal to parents, governments, the public, donors and the private sector to join UNICEF as we seek to respond, recover and reimagine a world currently besieged by the coronavirus:

“We cannot allow children to be the overlooked victims of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Fore. “We must simultaneously think both short and long term, so that we not only address the challenges posed by the pandemic and its secondary impacts on children, but also chart a brighter future for children and young people.”

Notes to Editors

Ethiopia Specific Information:

Here in Ethiopia, and due to the combined effects of desert locusts, climate change, and the secondary impact of COVID-19, UNICEF and its nutrition partners anticipate that the number of children to be treated for Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) in 2020 alone will rise by 24 per cent i.e. The humanitarian target will therefore rise from the 460,000 initially planned (which includes 16,000 refugee children), to 570,000 children (of which 18,400 are refugee children); this represents 110,000 more children that need to be treated for wasting. In the next three months a rise of this magnitude will undoubtedly trigger a spike in child mortality, as children with SAM are more vulnerable and likely to die from infectious diseases, such as measles and malaria.

In June 2020, UNICEF and WFP launched a three-year partnership in Ethiopia to support the Government of Ethiopia in preventing acute malnutrition among children and mothers. The first-of-its-kind partnership underlines the urgency of preventing acute malnutrition, which has seen insufficient progress over the past two decades. While attention is still needed on treatment (UNICEF currently faces a gap of six million USD to procure the required Ready to Use Therapeutic Food – RUTF), long term change can be achieved only by further investing in prevention, including locally available nutritious food options and enhancement of food supply chain.

Media Contacts

Sabrina Sidhu
UNICEF New York
Tel: +1 917 4761537
Wossen Mulatu
Communication Officer
UNICEF Ethiopia
Tel: +251 115 184028

Download photos, broll and the commentaries here: https://weshare.unicef.org/Package/2AM408P24Q9D

The paper and the commentary will go live in The Lancet on 27 July, 18.30 EST/ 22.30 GMT/ 23.30 UK time.

Child malnutrition and COVID-19: the time to act post-embargo link: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)31648-2/fulltext

Impacts of COVID-19 on childhood malnutrition and nutrition-related mortality post-embargo link: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)31647-0/fulltext

Comment pieces are written by experts in the field, and represent their own views, rather than necessarily the views of The Lancet or any Lancet specialty journal. Comment was externally peer-reviewed.

About the Analysis

The analysis is based on research efforts by the Standing Together for Nutrition consortium. They link three approaches to model the combined economic and health systems impacts from COVID19 on malnutrition and mortality: MIRAGRODEP’s macroeconomic projections of impacts on per capita gross national income (GNI)8; microeconomic estimates of how predicted GNI shocks impact child wasting using data on 1.26 million children from 177 Demographic Health Surveys (DHS) conducted in 52 LMICs between 1990-2018; and the Lives Saved Tool (LIST) which links country-specific health service disruptions and predicted increases in wasting to child mortality.

About the Reimagine Campaign

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF has launched Reimagine — an urgent appeal to governments, the public, donors and the private sector to support UNICEF’s efforts to respond, recover and reimagine a world currently besieged by COVID-19. Together, we can prevent this pandemic from becoming a lasting crisis for children—especially the most vulnerable—and Reimagine a fairer world for every child.

Learn about the #Reimagine campaign here: www.unicef.org/reimagine

Join us: https://www.unicef.org/coronavirus/covid-19/donate

About UNICEF

UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.

For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org.

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