Time to act: COVID-19 & child nutrition

6.7 million children under the age of five could suffer from acute malnutrition due to the COVID-19 pandemic, finds new Lancet analysis Impacts of COVID-19 on child malnutrition and nutrition-related mortality. In accompanying commentary piece, heads of four UN agencies call for immediate action in five areas to protect and treat child wasting.

New analysis by the Lancet reviewing the impact of the pandemic on child malnutrition finds that that the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 risk wiping out at least two decades of progress on tackling hunger and malnutrition. Declines in household incomes, changes in the availability and affordability of nutritious foods, and interruptions to health, nutrition and social protection services are impacting child nutrition with dire consequences. Without urgent action, the number of children wasted this year could rise to 54 million.

“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,” Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF.  

The main findings

kiddoLockdown measures, coupled with severe mobility disruptions and food system disruptions have resulted in a decrease of nearly 8% of gross national income (GNI) per capita, compared to pre-pandemic.

A decline in GNI per capita is closely linked with large increases in child wasting. Based on the 8% decrease in GNI per capita, projections suggest a 14% increase in the number of children under-five with moderate or severe wasting this year. This would mean an additional 6.7 million children wasted in 2020. The majority of children impacted will be in South Asia (57.6%) and sub-Saharan Africa (21.8%).

UNICEF estimates that strained health systems have seen a 30% overall reduction in essential nutrition services in low and middle-income countries – a figure that rises to 75 - 100% in areas under lockdown. The projected increase in wasting combined with the decrease in nutrition and health services is estimated to result in nearly 130,000 additional child deaths in 2020.

Report authors warn that these estimates likely to underestimate the full impact of COVID-19 on nutrition, as the duration of this crisis is still unknown and its full effects yet to be realised. Beyond wasting, COVID-19 is expected to increase risk of all forms of malnutrition: 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,” says Henrietta Fore, Qu Dongyu, David Beasley and Tedros Ghebreyesus.

The United Nations estimates a minimum of $2.4 billion is needed to protect, prevent and treat child wasting as well as urgent action in the following five areas:

  1. Safeguard and promote access to nutritious, safe and affordable diets
  2. Invest in improving maternal and child nutrition
  3. Re-active and scale up services for early detection and treatment of child wasting
  4. Maintain the provision of nutritious and safe school meals
  5. Expand social protection to safeguard access to nutritious diets and essential services

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