Number of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition across the Sahel reaches 10-year high

More than 1.3 million children to receive emergency treatment in 2018, but more investment in prevention measures needed to influence trends in 2019 and beyond

16 November 2018
A woman holds her baby in her lap, Chad

DAKAR/NEW YORK, 16 November 2018 – More than 1.3 million children under five years of age in need of treatment for severe acute malnutrition across six Africa’s Sahel countries are expected to receive care in 2018 – the highest number in at least a decade and a more than 50 per cent increase in the number of severely malnourished children compared to 2017 in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal.

At the start of 2018, UNICEF had initially projected that up to 1.6 million children across the six Sahel countries were at risk of suffering from severe acute malnutrition. In response, the children’s agency quickly ramped up its response, delivering lifesaving supplies and medicines with the support of the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) and other partners.

“Malnutrition silently stalks children across the Sahel, and 2018 has been particularly severe,” said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “We have been able to deliver the supplies and medicines these children need to survive, but equally important are investments in preventive measures and early detection to stop children from getting sick in the first place. This was the shift we implemented this year and it produced encouraging results.”  

Malnutrition chronically reaches emergency levels in pockets of the Sahel because of multiple factors including land and crop degradation, periodic droughts and weather-related shocks, poverty, limited access to basic food staples and essential services, and population growth.

Each year in the Sahel, many children suffer from severe acute malnutrition, especially during the lean season when food becomes scarce and there is an increase in malaria and diarrheal diseases. This year has seen a significant spike in acute malnutrition numbers because of insufficient rains, high food prices, armed conflict and insecurity.

“When children suffer from severe acute malnutrition, they are more vulnerable to illnesses such as malaria and waterborne diseases,” said Ms. Poirier. “And likewise, if they are fighting off an illness, they are at greater risk of becoming malnourished. That is why it is also essential to prevent the spread of disease, increase access to adequate sanitation, and promote optimal infant and young child feeding practices.”

In addition to providing urgent support for treatment, UNICEF has been working with local governments in Sahel countries to prevent malnutrition through the promotion of good feeding practices and use of local food resources, improved health and other social services. To help quickly identify children with malnutrition and save their lives, UNICEF has been supporting and advocating for affordable measures including:

  • Facilitating early detection of malnutrition in children by teaching mothers and caregivers to screen their children at home through the measurement of the upper arm circumference (MUAC) of their children;
  • Systematically screening children under five during preventive seasonal antimalaria treatment campaigns (Seasonal Malaria Chemoprevention), an innovative approach that helps local partners identify malnourished children early on and prevent health complications;
  • Giving emotional and physical stimulation to children suffering from severe acute malnutrition during their hospital stay to help them recover more quickly; 
  • Policy actions such as including the treatment of severe acute malnutrition as part of national public health response and spending.  

Although many children have been reached with treatment, UNICEF still faces a funding gap of about 65 per cent, which limits efforts to create conditions for communities to become self-reliant and better prepared against recurring malnutrition.

Media contacts

Diane Yameogo
UNICEF West and Central Africa Regional Office
Tel: +(221) 77 332 4326
Christopher Tidey
Tel: +1 917 340 3017


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