Originally published in unicef.org on 28 July 2020

UNICEF calls for accelerated action to prevent and treat malnutrition caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as humanitarian community appeals for $2.4 billion to improve maternal and child nutrition globally

NEW YORK/DHAKA, 28 JULY 2020 – An additional 3.9 million children in South Asia under the age of five could suffer from wasting – and therefore become dangerously undernourished – in 2020 as a result of the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF warned today.

According to an analysis published in The Lancet, 6.7  million children globally could suffer from wasting and over half (58 per cent or 3.9 million) would be from South Asia alone.

Wasting, which makes children too thin and weak, is a life-threatening form of malnutrition. It puts them at greater risk of dying, poor growth, development and learning. According to UNICEF, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 47 million children were already wasted in 2019. 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.

The Lancet analysis finds that the prevalence of wasting among children under the age of five could increase by 14.3 per cent in low- and middle-income countries this year, due to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19. Such an increase in child malnutrition could translate into an increase from 1.7 million children wasted in 2019 in Bangladesh to 1.9 million in 2020.

In Bangladesh, admissions for treating severely wasted children with medical complications were down to 10 per cent in April 2020 compared with pre-pandemic levels. While essential nutrition services have now started to resume, they have not returned to prior capacity. In June 2020, admissions were at 56 per cent compared with what they were before the start of the pandemic.

“Malnutrition could exacerbate the effects of COVID-19 in mothers and children and make the current crisis an inter-generational one. Greater effort is needed to make sure that essential nutrition services are operating at full capacity, and that parents feel safe to bring their children to health facilities for screening and treatment,” said Tomoo Hozumi, UNICEF Representative in Bangladesh.

To improve continuity of essential nutrition services in Bangladesh, UNICEF supports the Government and other stakeholders to increase vitamin A supplementation, treat children with severe wasting, promote improved young child feeding, and provide micronutrient supplements to pregnant women.

“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.”

The estimated increase in child wasting is only the tip of the iceberg, UN agencies warn.  COVID-19 will also increase other forms of malnutrition in children and women, including stunting, micronutrient deficiencies and overweight and obesity as a result of poorer diets and the disruption of nutrition services. UNICEF reports from the early months of the pandemic suggest a 30 per cent overall reduction in the coverage of essential – and often life-saving – nutrition services globally. In some countries, these disruptions have reached 75 per cent to 100 per cent under lockdown measures.

In a commentary to The Lancet report, also released today, the heads of UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization warned that the COVID-19 pandemic is undermining nutrition across the world particularly in low- and middle-income countries, with the worst consequences being borne by young children. More children and women are becoming malnourished due to the deteriorating quality of their diets, the interruption of nutrition services, and the shocks created by the pandemic.

Humanitarian agencies globally immediately need USD $2.4 billion to protect maternal and child nutrition in the most vulnerable countries from now until the end of the year. The heads of the four United Nations agencies appeal to governments, the public, donors and the private sector to protect children’s right to nutrition by:

  • Safeguarding access to nutritious, safe and affordable diets as a cornerstone of the response to COVID-19 by protecting food producers, processors and retailers; discouraging trade bans; and designating food markets as essential services;
  • Investing decisively in support for maternal and child nutrition by protecting breastfeeding, preventing the inappropriate marketing of infant formula, and securing children and women’s access to nutritious and diverse foods;
  • Re-activating and scaling up services for the early detection and treatment of child wasting while expanding other life-protecting nutrition services;
  • Maintaining the provision of nutritious and safe school meals by reaching vulnerable children through home delivery, take-home rations, cash or vouchers when schools are closed; and
  • Expanding social protection to safeguard access to nutritious diets and essential services among the poorest and most affected households, including access to fortified foods.

“We cannot allow children to be the overlooked victims of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Fore. “We must simultaneously think both short and long term, so that we not only address the challenges posed by the pandemic and its secondary impacts on children, but also chart a brighter future for children and young people.”


Download photos, broll and the commentaries here: https://weshare.unicef.org/Package/2AM408P24Q9D

The paper and the commentary will go live in The Lancet on 27 July, 18.30 EST/ 22.30 GMT/ 23.30 UK time.

Child malnutrition and COVID-19: the time to act post-embargo link: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)31648-2/fulltext

Impacts of COVID-19 on childhood malnutrition and nutrition-related mortality post-embargo link: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)31647-0/fulltext

Comment pieces are written by experts in the field, and represent their own views, rather than necessarily the views of The Lancet or any Lancet specialty journal. Comment was externally peer-reviewed.

About the Analysis

The analysis is based on research efforts by the Standing Together for Nutrition consortium. They link three approaches to model the combined economic and health systems impacts from COVID19 on malnutrition and mortality: MIRAGRODEP’s macroeconomic projections of impacts on per capita gross national income (GNI)8; microeconomic estimates of how predicted GNI shocks impact child wasting using data on 1.26 million children from 177 Demographic Health Surveys (DHS) conducted in 52 LMICs between 1990-2018; and the Lives Saved Tool (LIST) which links country-specific health service disruptions and predicted increases in wasting to child mortality.

About the Reimagine Campaign

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF has launched Reimagine — an urgent appeal to governments, the public, donors and the private sector to support UNICEF’s efforts to respond, recover and reimagine a world currently besieged by COVID-19. Together, we can prevent this pandemic from becoming a lasting crisis for children—especially the most vulnerable—and Reimagine a fairer world for every child.

Learn about the #Reimagine campaign here: www.unicef.org/reimagine

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