The world is poised to witness a catastrophic explosion of severe malnutrition rates among children

17 May 2022
Razafimandimby prend un RUTF

Following the surge in food prices driven by the war in Ukraine and the budget cuts caused by the pandemic, the cost of life-saving therapeutic food for malnourished children is expected to increase by up to 16 percent – even as needs continue to grow.

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NEW YORK, 17 May, 2022 – The number of children with severe wasting had already been on the rise before the war in Ukraine threatened to plunge the world into the spiralling food crisis – and the situation is getting worse, warns UNICEF in a new SOS Children report.

Released today, the briefing note Severe Wasting: An overlooked child survival emergency shows that in spite of rising levels of severe wasting in children and rising costs for life-saving treatment, global financing needed to save the lives of children suffering from wasting is also under threat.    

“Even before the war in Ukraine affected global food security, families were already struggling to feed their children due to conflict, climate shocks and COVID-19,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “The world is now poised to witness an explosion of preventable child deaths and child wasting.”

Currently, at least 10 million severely emaciated children – two-thirds – do not have access to ready-to-use therapeutic food, which is the most effective treatment for this disease. According to UNICEF, the combined effects of global shocks, which are undermining global food security – namely, the war in Ukraine, the challenges of economic recovery in the aftermath of the pandemic and the persistent drought in several countries due to climate change – are creating conditions conducive for a significant rise in severe wasting rates around the world.

In Madagascar, the actions to be carried out are vital. Recurrent threats of drought, cyclone and the global food security crisis pose real threats to children in Madagascar. Today, six per cent of children under the age of 5 suffer from acute malnutrition, the most threatening form of malnutrition for children’s survival. In 2020, 42,000 children were treated and more than 60,000 in 2021 because of Kere in Southern Madagascar, which represents about 25 per cent of the annual cases of malnourished children in the country. Access to treatment in health centres generally enables recovery of more than 90%. In Madagascar 1,304 health centres provide this treatment, representing only 57 per cent of all public health institutions in the country.

The national scheme for the prevention and treatment of acute malnutrition in Madagascar estimates the need for preventing and treating malnutrition at US$ 489M over the next 4 years, including US$ 44M for the treatment of acute malnutrition. Only 25 per cent of the necessary budget is currently available.

“Every year, the lives of millions of children depend on this therapeutic sachet preparation. While global food markets appear to be able to absorb 16 per cent extra cost, the life of a severely malnourished child is put at risk by such an increase at the end of the supply chain. For this child, the stakes are unacceptable,” added Catherine Russell.

Globally, at least 13.6 million children under the age of 5 suffer from this disease, which accounts for one-fifth of deaths in this age group.

South Asia remains the ‘epicentre’ of severe wasting, where roughly 1 in 22 children is severely wasted, twice as high as sub-Saharan Africa. Elsewhere in the world, severe wasting also reaches historically high rates in various countries. In Afghanistan, for example, 1.1 million children are expected to suffer from severe wasting this year, nearly double the number in 2018. In the drought-stricken Horn of Africa, the number of severely emaciated children could quickly rise from 1.7 million to 2 million, while a 26 per cent increase is predicted in the Sahel compared to 2018.


The SOS Children report also points out that some countries with relative stability, such as Uganda, have seen an increase of 40 per cent or more in cases of child wasting since 2016. This is explained by the worsening poverty and food insecurity of families, and which has the effect of harming the quality and frequency of meals for children and pregnant women. In addition, climate-related shocks such as intense cyclical drought and problems of access to clean water and sanitation services are increasing the number of cases.

The report also warns against the cruel lack of funding for wasting, knowing that it is predicted to decline sharply in the coming years, with little hope of a return to pre-pandemic levels before 2028. According to a new analysis conducted as part of this note, global aid spent on wasting amounts to just 2.8 per cent of the Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget allocated to the health sector in general and 0.2 per cent of total ODA.

To ensure that every child suffering from severe wasting can benefit from life-saving treatment, UNICEF is calling upon:

  • Governments to increase aid for child wasting by at least 59 per cent above ODA levels in 2019 so as to reach all children in need of treatment in 23 high-burden countries;
  • Countries to integrate the treatment of child wasting into health and long-term development funding schemes, so that all children – even those who are not in humanitarian crisis settings – can benefit from treatment programmes;
  • Budget allocations for combatting the global food crisis to include systematically funds dedicated to therapeutic foods to address the immediate needs of children suffering from severe wasting;
  • Donors and civil society organizations to prioritize funding for the fight against wasting to ensure a diverse, expanding and strong financial support ecosystem.

“There is no reason for a child to suffer from severe wasting – especially since we have the ability to prevent this disease. We have very little time left to relaunch global action to prevent, detect and treat malnutrition, and we must make the most of it before the situation gets even more dramatic.” concluded Catherine Russell.



Notes to the Editor

About ready-to-use therapeutic food

Packaged in individual sachets, ready-to-use therapeutic food takes the form of high-energy paste rich in lipids and micronutrients, made from peanuts, sugar, oil and powdered milk. As the leading player in the world market for ready-to-use therapeutic food, UNICEF purchases and distributes 75 per cent up to 80 per cent of the global production and procures from some 20 manufacturers around the world.


About ODA

Official Development Assistance (ODA) is defined as government aid with the sole aim to promote the economic development and improve living conditions in developing countries. Adopted by the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1969 as the benchmark for external aid, ODA remains the main source of financing for development assistance. ODA is based on statistics collected, processed and published by the OECD.


Media contacts

Timothy James Irwin
Chief of Communication
UNICEF Madagascar
Lalaina Ralaiarijaona
Communication officer
UNICEF Madagascar

A propos d'UNICEF

L’UNICEF travaille dans les endroits les plus inhospitaliers du monde pour atteindre les enfants les plus défavorisés. Dans 190 pays et territoires, nous travaillons pour chaque enfant, partout, afin de construire un monde meilleur pour tous. 

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