An additional 6.7 million children under 5 could suffer from wasting this year due to COVID-19: UNICEF

An additional 6.7 million (67-lakh) children under the age of five across the world could suffer from wasting this year due to the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UNICEF warned on Tuesday.

Wasting, or low weight for height, is a strong predictor of mortality among children under five. It is a life-threatening form of malnutrition, which makes children too thin and weak, and puts them at greater risk of dying, poor growth, development and learning. It is usually the result of acute significant food shortage and/or disease. One in ten deaths among children younger than five years in low and middle-income countries is attributable to severe wasting.

The Lancet analysis finds that the prevalence of wasting among children under the age of five suffering from it as the pandemic resulted in disruption of food systems and impeded access to healthcare services could increase by 14.3 per cent in low and middle-income countries this year due to the socio-economic impact of COVID-19.

Before the pandemic, nearly 47 million children younger than five years were estimated to be affected were estimated by wasting globally. The new estimates presented in The Lancet study titled ‘Impacts of COVID-19 on childhood malnutrition and nutrition-related mortality’ bring the total figure for 2020 to 53.7 million children under five.

“With an estimated 47 million children younger than 5 years affected by wasting globally before the COVID-19 pandemic, this would translate to an estimated additional 6·7 million children with wasting during the first 12 months of the pandemic,” stated The Lancet in its study. It further states, “80% of them in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia—and more than 10000 additional child deaths per month during this same period.”

As part of its Reimagine campaign, UNICEF calls for accelerated action to prevent and treat malnutrition caused by pandemic as humanitarian community appeals for $2.4 billion to improve maternal and child nutrition | Photo Credit:

In India, 17% children are wasted, according to the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey of 2018. According to UNICEF, in India, still, around 20 million children under five years of age are suffering from wasting.

The Asia average for wasting is as low as 9.4%, according to the Global Nutrition Report 2020. According to the Global Hunger Index 2019, wasting among children in India rose from 16.5 per cent in 2008-2012 to 20.8 per cent in 2014-2018.

The study has been brought out by the Standing Together for Nutrition consortium, which comprises the International Food Policy Research Institute, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Burnett Institute, the World Bank, Results for Development (R4D), and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

“It’s been seven months since the first COVID-19 cases were reported and it is increasingly clear that the repercussions of the pandemic are causing more harm to children than the disease itself,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.

“Household poverty and food insecurity rates have increased. Essential nutrition services and supply chains have been disrupted. Food prices have soared. As a result, the quality of children’s diets has gone down and malnutrition rates will go up,” she said.

The authors warn that the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to increase the risk of all forms of malnutrition. This, combined with disruption in health services and further deepening of economic and food crises, could compromise maternal and child health and mortality as well as have “intergenerational consequences for child growth and development, and life-long impacts on education, chronic disease risks, and overall human capital formation”.

“Our agencies estimate that a minimum of US$2·4 billion is needed immediately to protect these children, prevent and treat malnutrition, and avoid human loss. This $2·4 billion estimate includes an essential package of four life-saving interventions: prevention of wasting in children at risk; treatment for children who are wasted; biannual vitamin A supplementation for children aged 6–59 months (90% coverage); and mass communication for the protection, promotion, and support of breastfeeding that focuses on caregivers or families of children aged 0–23 months.

The heads of the four multilateral agencies also issued a call for action to protect children’s right to nutrition in the face of COVID-19. “Without urgent action, the global number of children suffering from wasting could reach almost 54 million over the course of the year. This would bring global wasting to levels not seen this millennium,” warn the heads of UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO), in an accompanying commentary that was also published today.

They have called upon governments to expand social protection services to ensure access to nutritious diets, scaling-up programmes to ensure early detection of child wasting, and ensuring nutritious meals for vulnerable children through home delivery, take-home rations, and cash or vouchers as schools remain shut.

The study also stated that investments are also needed to improve maternal and child nutrition through pregnancy, infancy, and early childhood by protecting breastfeeding and preventing the inappropriate marketing of infant formula in the context of COVID-19, securing children and women’s access to nutritious and diverse foods; and providing accurate information on infant feeding to caregivers.

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