World a ‘virtual tinderbox’ for catastrophic levels of severe malnutrition in children

Soaring food prices driven by the war in Ukraine and pandemic-fuelled budget cuts set to drive up both need for, and cost of, life-saving therapeutic food treatment, the latter by up to 16 per cent

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London, 17 May 2022  The number of children with severe wasting was rising even before war in Ukraine threatened to plunge the world deeper into a spiralling global food crisis – and it’s getting worse, UNICEF warned in a new Child Alert.

Released today, Severe wasting: An overlooked child survival emergency shows that in spite of rising levels of severe wasting in children and rising costs for life-saving treatment, global financing to save the lives of children suffering from wasting is also under threat.

“Russia and Ukraine are the breadbaskets of the world, producing around one third of the world’s grain. The war has led to soaring food prices in countries already battling climate change, drought and the pandemic” said Amelia Christie, Head of International Policy and Advocacy at the UK Committee for UNICEF (UNICEF UK).

East African countries are dependent on Ukraine and Russia for 90% of grain imports. In parts of East Africa, the number of children affected by the severe drought has increased by more than 40% in the past two months alone.

“The last major famine was in Somalia in 2011 and we can see that the numbers of severely wasted children are worse now. This is an alarm call. We know how to prevent famine, but we need the political will and funds to take action early enough to avoid catastrophe and protect children now,” continued Christie.

At least 330,000 children in Somalia will need life-saving treatment for severe wasting in 2022 – far exceeding the 190,000 who required treatment during the country’s 2011 famine.  An estimated 1.4 million children will suffer from wasting – nearly 45 per cent of all children below age 5, and over three times more than in 2011.

Currently, at least 10 million severely wasted children globally – or 2 in 3 – do not have access to the most effective treatment for wasting, ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF). The price of ready-to-use therapeutic food is projected to increase by up to 16 per cent over the next six months due to a sharp rise in the cost of raw ingredients. This could leave up to 600,000 additional children without access to life-saving treatment at current spending levels. Shipping and delivery costs are also expected to remain high.

“For millions of children every year, these sachets of therapeutic paste are the difference between life and death. A sixteen per cent price increase may sound manageable in the context of global food markets, but at the end of that supply chain is a desperately malnourished child, for whom the stakes are not manageable at all,” said Christie.

Severe wasting – where children are too thin for their height resulting in weakened immune systems – is the most immediate, visible and life-threatening form of malnutrition. Worldwide, at least 13.6 million children under five suffer from severe wasting, resulting in 1 in 5 deaths among this age group.

Around the world, countries are facing historically high rates of severe wasting. In Afghanistan, for example, 1.1 million children are expected to suffer from severe wasting this year, nearly double the number in 2018. The Child Alert also notes that even countries in relative stability, such as Uganda, have seen a 40 per cent or more increase in child wasting since 2016, due to rising poverty and climate shocks.

Christie continued: “The reality is that we already have the knowledge and tools to make a lasting difference between life and death for the world’s most vulnerable children. With collective action and the right investment in aid, progress can be made in preventing wasting and reaching every child in need of treatment.”

To reach every child with life-saving treatment for severe wasting, UNICEF is calling for countries to include treatment for child wasting under health and long-term development funding schemes so that all children can benefit from treatment programmes, not just those in humanitarian crisis settings. Budget allocations to address the global hunger crisis should include specific allocations for therapeutic food interventions to address the immediate needs of children suffering from severe wasting.