More than 15 million ‘acute malnutrition’ cases expected in 2020 in West, Central Africa: UNICEF, WFP analysis

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United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that more than 15 million cases of acute malnutrition are expected in children under the age of five in West and Central Africa if adequate measures are not urgently put in place.

According to the UNICEF statement, this represents a 20 per cent increase from estimates made in January 2020. The warning comes after an analysis of the combined impact of food insecurity and COVID on acute malnutrition in 19 countries.

Conflict and armed violence have led to massive population displacements and drastically limited access to basic social services, leading child malnutrition to increase to unprecedented levels.

The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating challenges in already fragile contexts in West and Central Africa, such as in the Sahel region across Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal, which were already stricken with food insecurity and malnutrition.

Before the COVID pandemic, 4.5 million cases of acute malnutrition were expected in 2020 in these 6 countries. Today, with growing insecurity and COVID-19, that number has jumped to almost 5.4 million, the statement said.

“Children suffering from severe acute malnutrition are at higher risk of COVID related complications,” UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Marie-Pierre Poirier said in a statement.

“Good nutrition for children, starting from their early days, protects them against illnesses and infections and supports their recovery when they become ill. Ensuring the continuity of preventive and lifesaving health and nutrition services, building shock-responsive social protection systems, protecting livelihoods and supporting families’ access to water, hygiene and healthy food are critical for child survival and long-term development,” Poirier said.

Several factors threaten the nutritional status of children under five in West and Central Africa. These include household food insecurity, poor maternal nutrition and infant feeding practices, conflicts and armed violence, population displacement, high levels of childhood illnesses and water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, fragile health systems, poor access to clean water and sanitation, and chronic poverty.

Adding to these factors, the statement said that containment measures put in place in response to the COVID pandemic have led to disruptions in food production and distribution and in health and humanitarian supply chains, as well as to a slow-down of economic activities. The pandemic has had indirect negative impacts on food systems, household income and food security, and the provision of treatment against malnutrition. This makes it more difficult for populations to maintain healthy diets and optimal infant and young child feeding practices and hinders their access to essential nutrition services.

“Thousands of families will be unable to provide their children with the nutritious food needed for their proper growth and development,” the UNICEF statement quoted Chris Nikoi, WFP Regional Director for West and Central Africa, as saying.

“We must work together to improve access to nutritious foods and ensure that there are strong preventive actions that protect children from falling into the vicious trap of malnutrition and sickness,” Nikoi said.

WFP and UNICEF are working with governments and partners to ensure the continuation of essential services. Together, they deliver an integrated package of care focused on the prevention and treatment of acute malnutrition and empower communities for the provision of basic services.

In northern Mali, for example, WFP and UNICEF are joining efforts and resources to treat and prevent maternally and child malnutrition and reinforce good feeding practices. This includes screening children for malnutrition as part of an initiative that promotes early detection of malnutrition in children by mothers and families, using a Mid Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) screening tape.

In addition, it allows for the referral of moderate and severe acute malnutrition cases to health facilities, supported by both agencies. Prevention activities include sensitization sessions on infant and young child feeding practices, supported by UNICEF and complemented by the provision of vouchers to women to exchange for nutritious foods available in the market, facilitated by WFP, the report added.

These figures include DRC and represent the total annual number of episodes of acute malnutrition, including new cases and relapses. One child can have several episodes in a year. As per the UNICEF, WHO and WB Joint Malnutrition Estimates (edition 2020), 7.3 million children were suffering from wasting (severe and moderate) in the west and central Africa in 2019.

UNICEF earlier revealed that at least 40 million children worldwide have missed out on early childhood education in their critical pre-school year due to the COVID shuttering childcare and early education facilities.

UNICEF agency works in over 190 countries and territories to protect the rights of every child and has spent 70 years working to improve the lives of children and their families.


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