Soaring food costs, low rainfall and insecurity leave children in the Sahel at risk of catastrophic levels of severe malnutrition - UNICEF

Soaring food prices driven by the war in Ukraine and pandemic-fuelled budget cuts set to drive up both need for, and cost of life-saving therapeutic food treatment, the latter by up to 16 per cent

17 May 2022

DAKAR / NEW YORK, 17 May 2022 The number of children with severe wasting was rising even before war in Ukraine threatened to plunge the world deeper into a spiralling global food crisis - and it is getting worse, UNICEF warned in a new Child Alert.

Almost 1 million children across the Central Sahel, are already suffering from life-threatening severe acute malnutrition. This number will increase by 40 per cent to 1.4 million in the coming months due to the combined effects of multiple crises, including rising insecurity, increased food prices and climate change.

Released today, 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 to save the lives of children suffering from wasting is also under threat.

“Even before the war in Ukraine placed a strain on food security worldwide, conflict, climate shocks and COVID-19 were already wreaking havoc on families’ ability to feed their children,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “The world is rapidly becoming a virtual tinderbox of preventable child deaths and child suffering from wasting.”

Currently, at least 10 million severely wasted children – or 2 in 3 – do not have access to the most effective treatment for wasting, ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF). UNICEF warns that a combination of global shocks to food security worldwide – led by the war in Ukraine, economies struggling with pandemic recovery, and persistent drought conditions in some countries due to climate change – are creating conditions for a significant increase in global levels of severe wasting.

Meanwhile, the price of ready-to-use therapeutic food is projected to increase by up to 16 per cent over the next six months due to a sharp rise in the cost of raw ingredients. This could leave up to 600,000 additional children without access to life-saving treatment at current spending levels. Shipping and delivery costs are also expected to remain high.

“Prices are rising for life-saving treatments just when they are most needed,” said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “With rising insecurity, increased food prices, climate change and with rainfall last year well below average across the Sahel, child malnutrition is increasing significantly. We need to act now, not just to invest in life-saving treatment, but also to build the long-term resilience of communities and shift to prevention because we urgently need to address the root causes of these challenges.”

In Mauritania, Niger and Chad, the prevalence of child wasting is above the “alert” threshold of 10 per cent, while in many areas of these countries, the prevalence exceeds the emergency threshold of 15 per cent.

West and Central Africa is home to 12% of the world’s children, but the region bears a disproportionately large burden of key child rights deprivations. The region is home to 20% of all stunted children under 5 globally (29.3 million).

UNICEF has over 1,700 UNICEF field specialists working in the 10 Sahel countries, across 45 main offices and sub-offices. These offices support children as they grow up alongside conflict, malnutrition and disaster recovery.

Severe wasting – where children are too thin for their height resulting in weakened immune systems – is the most immediate, visible and life-threatening form of malnutrition. Worldwide, at least 13.6 million children under five suffer from severe wasting, resulting in 1 in 5 deaths among this age group.

The report goes on to warn that aid for wasting remains woefully low and is predicted to decline sharply in the coming years, with little hope of recovering to pre-pandemic levels before 2028. According to a new analysis for the brief, global aid spent on wasting amounts to just 2.8 per cent of the total health sector ODA (Official Development Assistance) and 0.2 per cent of total ODA spending.

To reach every child with life-saving treatment for severe wasting, UNICEF in West and Central Africa is calling for:

  • An acceleration of access to life-saving treatment to children affected by severe wasting and this requires:
    • Countries to include treatment for child wasting under health and long-term development funding schemes so that all children can benefit from treatment programmes, not just those in humanitarian crisis settings.
    • Ensuring that budget allocations to address the global hunger crisis include specific allocations for therapeutic food interventions to address the immediate needs of children suffering from severe wasting.
  • Governments and all partners to operate a paradigm shift, step up prevention and promote multi-sectoral approaches to address the multiple underlying vulnerabilities such as widespread food insecurity, inadequate dietary and care practices for infants and young children, inadequate maternal nutrition, high incidence of childhood illnesses, inadequate access to water and sanitation and health services, gender and other social norms, all interoperating on the ground marked by widespread poverty.
  • Donors and civil society organizations to prioritize flexible funding for nutrition to ensure a diverse, growing and a healthy ecosystem of donor support.


Notes to Editors

About RUTF

Ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) paste is a lipid-based energy dense, micronutrient paste, using a mixture of peanuts, sugar, oil, and milk powder, packaged in individual sachets. UNICEF, the global leader in RUTF procurement, purchases and distributes an estimated 75-80 per cent of the world's supply from over 20 manufacturers located across the world.

About ODA

Official development assistance (ODA) is government aid that promotes and specifically targets the economic development and welfare of developing countries. The Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) adopted ODA as the main instrument of foreign aid in 1969 and it remains the main source of financing for development aid. ODA data is collected, verified and made publicly available by the OECD.

Media contacts

Anne Isabelle Leclercq Balde
UNICEF West & Central Africa
Tel: + 221 77 740 69 14
John James
UNICEF West & Central Africa
Tel: +221 78 638 02 52


UNICEF promotes the rights and well-being 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.

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