Nutrition and care for children with wasting
Treating children with the most life-threatening form of malnutrition.
Wasting is the most immediate, visible and life-threatening form of malnutrition. It results from the failure to prevent malnutrition among the most vulnerable children.
Children with wasting are too thin and their immune systems are weak, leaving them vulnerable to developmental delays, disease and death. Some children affected by wasting also suffer from nutritional oedema, characterized by a swollen face, feet and limbs.
Wasting and other forms of acute malnutrition are the result of maternal malnutrition, low birthweight, poor feeding and care practices, and infection exacerbated by food insecurity, limited access to safe drinking water, and poverty. Growing evidence suggests that wasting occurs very early in life and disproportionally affects children under 2 years of age.
The number of children who suffer from wasting can increase dramatically as a result of conflict, epidemics and food insecurity, including that caused by climate change–induced droughts and flooding. Yet, wasting is not only a characteristic of crisis. In fact, two thirds of all children with wasting live in places that are not facing emergencies.
While the number of children being treated for wasting and other forms of life-threatening malnutrition has risen in recent years, only one in three children with severe wasting are reached with the timely treatment and care they need to survive and thrive.
In many countries, the prevention and treatment of wasting is underprioritized, under-resourced and out of reach – particularly for the most disadvantaged families and communities.
When efforts to prevent malnutrition fall short, early detection and treatment of children with wasting and other life-threatening forms of malnutrition are critical to save their lives and put them on the path to healthy growth and development.
In most cases, children with wasting can be treated with ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), allowing them to recover in their own homes and communities rather than in a health facility. Treatment services should be resourced by governments and managed primarily by the national health system rather than humanitarian workers.
Guided by the Global Action Plan on Child Wasting, UNICEF supports governments in scaling up the early detection and treatment of children with wasting in health facilities and communities by:
Using evidence to inform early detection and treatment
UNICEF works with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners to develop global guidelines for the early detection and treatment of child wasting, and helps governments update and align their strategies with global policy. We also work with governments to integrate this care into their primary health-care plans and budgets.
Strengthening health worker capacities
UNICEF supports the training of facility- and community-based health workers to improve the care of children with wasting, while working to integrate care into national pre-service curricula for primary health-care providers and community workers. We also empower communities and caregivers to use simple tools – such as arm circumference measurements – to identify and seek care for children with wasting.
Expanding early detection and treatment services
UNICEF helps governments scale up the treatment of children with wasting and integrate it within routine primary health-care services, focusing on the most vulnerable children and monitoring implementation through national health information systems.
Integrating nutrition supplies within national health systems
UNICEF works to improve the quality of ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) and strengthen the delivery of life-saving nutrition supplies to the children who need them most. We help improve government capacities to forecast and monitor RUTF and other nutrition supplies for children affected by wasting.
Making RUTF more affordable and sustainable
UNICEF helps countries diversify and improve the availability of RUTF, bringing it closer to children in need. We also support improvements in RUTF formulations to make them more acceptable to children and affordable and sustainable for governments.