Nearly 7 million more children 'could suffer from acute malnutrition due to COVID-19 pandemic'
In a commentary for the Lancet journal, leaders of the four UN agencies issued a call for action to protect children's right to nutrition in the face of the pandemic and sought a swift response and investments from governments, donors, the private sector, and the UN.
Nearly 7 million more children worldwide could suffer from acute malnutrition due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an analysis by a team of UN experts. It was published on Monday in The Lancet medical journal.
"The COVID-19 pandemic is undermining nutrition across the world, particularly in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs). The worst consequences are borne by young children," wrote the experts of four UN agencies -- UNICEF, FAO, World Food Programme and WHO.
They say that some of the strategies to respond to COVID-19 — including physical distancing, school closures, trade restrictions, and country lockdowns — are impacting food systems by disrupting the production, transportation, and sale of nutritious, fresh, and affordable foods, forcing millions of families to rely on nutrient-poor alternatives.
According to experts, even before COVID-19 there were an estimated 47 million children under five who were moderately or severely wasted, most living in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Now as lockdowns and international trade routes disrupt vital aid supplies, the United Nations has warned that the coronavirus pandemic could have an "intergenerational effect" on the health of millions.
Experts say that malnutrition could exacerbate the effects of COVID-19 in mothers and children. "At the same time, more children are becoming malnourished due to the deteriorating quality of their diets, interruptions in nutrition and other essential services, and the socioeconomic shocks created by the pandemic in low-income and middle-income countries."
New estimates by the team of UN experts in The Lancet suggest that without timely action, the global prevalence of child wasting (under-fives) would increase 14.3 per cent – equating to an additional 6.7 million cases this year compared to pre-pandemic projections. They expect 80% of these cases in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia --and more than 10 000 additional child deaths per month during this same period.
Wasting takes place when the body is so acutely malnourished that its muscles and fat begin to diminish.
COVID-19 has resulted in a 30% reduction of essential nutrition services in low and middle-income countries, leaders of the UN agencies said in accompanying comments. Some of these countries have seen a complete shutdown of these services during lockdown. The UN estimates a minimum of $2.4 billion is needed to treat and prevent child wasting.
They also said that the COVID-19 pandemic is also expected to increase other forms of child malnutrition, including stunting, micronutrient deficiencies, and overweight. The global community's failure to act now will have devastating long-term consequences for children, human capital, and national economies.
The experts issued a call for action to protect children's right to nutrition in the face of the pandemic and said that "this requires a swift response and investments from governments, donors, the private sector, and the UN".
Five actions, which they say, must be taken to protect children's right to nutrition in the COVID-19 pandemic are:
-- Safeguard and promote access to nutritious, safe, and affordable diets.
-- Invest in improving maternal and child nutrition through pregnancy, infancy, and early childhood.
-- Re-activate and scale up services for the early detection and treatment of child wasting.
-- Maintain the provision of nutritious and safe school meals for vulnerable children.
-- Expand social protection to safeguard access to nutritious diets and essential services.