Unicef has warned that an additional 6.7 million children 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.
As part of its Reimagine campaign, Unicef calls for accelerated action to prevent and treat malnutrition caused by the pandemic as humanitarian community appeals for $2.4 billion to improve maternal and child nutrition.
According to an analysis published in "The Lancet", 80 percent of these children would be from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Over half would be from South Asia alone.
Wasting 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.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, 47 million children were already wasted in 2019, which could reach almost 54 million globally 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 percent in low- and middle-income countries this year, due to the socio-economic impacts of Covid-19.
Such an increase in child malnutrition would translate into over 10,000 additional child deaths per month with over 50 per cent of these deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.
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.
"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.
"The quality of children's diets has gone down and malnutrition rates will go up as a result of declining rate of household poverty and food insecurity, disruption of essential nutrition services and supply chains, as well as soaring food price."
Unicef reports from the early months of the pandemic suggest a 30 percent overall reduction in the coverage of essential – and often life-saving – nutrition services. In some countries, these disruptions have reached 75 percent to 100 per cent under lockdown measures.
For example, in Afghanistan and Haiti, fear of infection and lack of protective equipment for health workers has led to an estimated 40 per cent and 73 per cent decline, respectively, in admissions to treat severe wasting in children. In Kenya, admissions dropped by 40 percent. Over 250 million children globally are missing the full benefits of vitamin A supplementation due to Covid-19.
When the projected increase in wasting in each country is combined with a projected year average of 25 percent reduction in nutrition services, there could be 128,605 additional deaths in children under the age of five over the year, according to the analysis.
The range reflects scenarios using a low of 15 percent and a high of 50 percent disruption in vitamin A supplementation, the treatment of severe wasting, the promotion of improved young child feeding, and the provision of micronutrient supplements to pregnant women.
In a commentary to The Lancet report released on July 27, 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 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
- Investing decisively in support for maternal and child nutrition
- Re-activating and scaling up services for the early detection and treatment of child wasting
- Maintaining the provision of nutritious and safe school meals
- Expanding social protection to safeguard access to nutritious diets and essential services
- Unicef's Reimagine campaign aims to prevent the Covid-19 pandemic from becoming a lasting crisis for children, especially the most vulnerable children.
Through the campaign, Unicef is issuing an urgent appeal to parents, governments, the public, donors and the private sector to join Unicef as we seek to respond, recover and reimagine a world currently besieged by the coronavirus.
Respond, to the activities that allow the disease to stop from spreading, help the sick, and protect first responders on the frontlines risking their own lives to save others. Countries and communities will have to work together across borders to Recover from the knock-on effects on children, and address the damage inflicted by rebuilding and preventing a return of the disease. As the world recovers from the pandemic, now is the time to lay the groundwork for building back better and Reimagine systems and policies that must protect people not just at the time of crisis but always.
"We cannot allow children to be the overlooked victims of the Covid-19 pandemic," said Fore adding, "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."