As the war in Ukraine continues, millions of children in the Middle East and North Africa at increased risk of malnutrition amid food price hikes

Families struggle to bring food to the table during the holy month of Ramadan

07 April 2022
Yemen. A girl suffering from severe malnutrition.
UNICEF/UN0276428/Almahbashi
FILE PHOTO

AMMAN, 7 April 2022- Six weeks into the war in Ukraine, the fragile nutritional status of children in the Middle East and North Africa is expected to worsen.

While Muslims in the region observe the holy month of Ramadan, disruption in imports caused by the conflict is creating food shortages amid high prices of essential commodities, including wheat, edible oils, and fuel. If this continues, it will severely impact children, especially in Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen; some are hunger hotspots according to recent assessments[1] undertaken prior to the Ukraine crisis, as those countries were already struggling with conflicts, economic crises, or a sharp increase in global food prices in 2021.

“With ongoing conflicts, political instability, the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the region is witnessing unprecedented hikes in food prices coupled with low purchasing power. The number of malnourished children is likely to drastically increase,” said Adele Khodr, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

The impact of the continuing war in Ukraine is compounding the impacts of two long years of the COVID-19 pandemic on economies, employment and poverty in the MENA region, where more than 90 per cent of food is imported.

Many countries have already been struggling with child malnutrition, especially due to ongoing armed conflicts and humanitarian crises.

  • Only 36 per cent of young children[2] in the region are receiving the diets they need to grow and develop in a healthy way;
  • The region is home to high rates of undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. On average, nearly one in five children is stunted while the average wasting rate is 7 per cent.

In the MENA countries most impacted by the war in Ukraine, undernutrition rates are higher.

  • In Yemen, 45 per cent of children are stunted and over 86 per cent have anaemia;
  • In Sudan, 13.6 per cent of children suffer from wasting, 36.4 per cent are stunted and nearly half have anaemia;
  • In Lebanon, 94 per cent of young children are not receiving the diets they need, while over 40 per cent of women and children under the age of five have anaemia;
  • In Syria, only one in four young children gets the diets they need to grow healthy. The price of the average food basket has nearly doubled in 2021 alone.

“UNICEF continues to coordinate the nutrition response in the region. We call to consolidate efforts to urgently deliver and scale up prevention, early detection and treatment of malnutrition to address the needs of millions of children and women, especially in countries most impacted by crises. This is critical to prevent a massive malnutrition crisis for children in the region” added Khodr.

UNICEF works with partners to deliver and scale-up life-saving treatment services for children with severe wasting in conjunction with its early detection in children under five years old. Simultaneously, with partners, UNICEF delivers preventive nutrition services including micronutrient supplements, growth monitoring and counselling and support on breastfeeding and age-appropriate complementary feeding.

“We stand ready to facilitate the revamping of the nutrition response in the region to further strengthen links with agriculture, social protection, education and water and sanitation sectors to reach more children in need,” concluded Khodr.

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Notes for editors:

  • In Syria, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen, over 9.1 million children under the age of five, and a total of almost 13.8 million children and women are in need of nutrition assistance.
  • Last year alone, UNICEF has been able to:
    • Provide nearly 3.5 million children under the age of five with micronutrient supplements;
    • Screen over 11 million children for wasting;
    • UNICEF MENA Regional Office redesigned an essential tool for malnutrition screening: the Mid-Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) tape. To improve hygiene, the tapes are disposable and made entirely from eco-friendly, biodegradable paper, with easy-to-follow instructions in Arabic and English printed on the back of the tapes using non-toxic ink;
    • Provide treatment services for nearly 650,000 children with severe wasting/Severe Acute Malnutrition;
    • Provide counselling to over 6 million women and caretakers of children on infant and young child feeding.
  • According to WFP, the prices of cooking oil have hiked up by 36 per cent in Yemen and 39 per cent in Syria. Wheat flour prices have increased by 47 per cent in Lebanon, 15 per cent in Libya and 14 per cent in The State of Palestine.
  • Stunting refers to a child who is too short for his or her age. Stunted children can suffer severe irreversible physical and cognitive damage that accompanies stunted growth. The devastating effects of stunting can last a lifetime and even affect the next generation.
  • Wasting refers to a child who is too thin for his or her height. Wasting is the result of recent rapid weight loss or the failure to gain weight. A child who suffers from moderate or severe wasting has an increased risk of death, but treatment is possible.
  • Undernutrition refers to both stunting and wasting.
  • Dietary diversity refers to the consumption of diverse food groups during the day. A minimum dietary diversity requires young children to be fed at least five of these eight food groups. The eight food groups are: (1) breastmilk (2) grains, roots and tubers; (3) legumes, nuts and seeds; (4) dairy (milk, yoghurt, cheese); (5) flesh foods (meat, fish, poultry, and liver or organ meats); (6) eggs; (7) vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables (carrots, mangoes, dark green leafy vegetables, pumpkins, orange sweet potato); and (8) other fruits and vegetables
  • UNICEF’s response includes:
    • Children’s nutrition packages include:
      • Adequate breastfeeding: early initiation within one hour of birth; exclusive breastfeeding in the first five months; and continued breastfeeding from 6 to 23 months.
      • Age-appropriate, diverse complementary foods with food-based supplements – including lipid-based nutrient supplements – for undernourished children in food-insecure areas.
      • Vitamin A supplements, deworming prophylaxis, and home-based fortification with micronutrient supplements where dietary diversity is limited, and micronutrient deficiencies and anaemia are prevalent.
      • Early detection and treatment of child wasting with emphasis on young children and community-based approaches.
    • Women’s nutrition packages include:
      • Counselling on maternal nutrition and monitoring healthy weight gain, with balanced protein energy supplements for undernourished women.
      • Multiple micronutrient supplements, deworming prophylaxis, and malaria control for the prevention of micronutrient deficiencies and anaemia.

[1] “Hunger Hotspots FAO-WFP early warnings on acute food insecurity | February to May 2022 Outlook”.

[2] Children between the ages of 6 and 23 months.

Media contacts

Juliette Touma
UNICEF Amman
Tel: +962 79 867 4628
Joe English
UNICEF New York
Tel: +1 917 893 0692

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