COVID-19 will lead to 6.7 million additional ‘wasted’ children, say global bodies

Scale-up detection, expand nutrition coverage: UNICEF, FAO, WFP, WHO

Updated - August 30, 2020 12:28 pm IST

Published - July 28, 2020 10:26 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

A volunteer feeds milk to a malnourished child in Mumbai. File (Representational image)

A volunteer feeds milk to a malnourished child in Mumbai. File (Representational image)


The global prevalence of child wasting — lower weight for height — in 2020 could rise by 14.3%, translating into an additional 6.7 million children under the age of five suffering from it as the pandemic resulted in disruption of food systems and impeded access to healthcare services, according to a new study published in The Lancet on Tuesday.

Wasting is a predictor of child mortality as it renders children vulnerable to infectious diseases. One in ten deaths among children younger than five years in low and middle income countries is attributable to severe wasting. In India, 17% children are wasted, according to the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey of 2018. The Asia average for wasting is as low as 9.4%, according to the Global Nutrition Report 2020.

Before the pandemic, nearly 47 million children younger than five years were estimated to be affected by wasting globally. The new estimates presented in The Lancet study titled ‘Impacts of COVID-19 on childhood malnutrition and nutrition-related mortality’ bring the total figure for 2020 to 53.7 million children under five.

‘Not seen this millennium’

“This would bring global wasting to levels not seen this millennium,” warn the heads of UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO), in an accompanying commentary that was also published today.

The study has been brought out by the Standing Together for Nutrition consortium, which comprises the International Food Policy Research Institute, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Burnett Institute, the World Bank, Results for Development (R4D), and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

It underlines that 80% of the additional number of wasted children would be in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and over half from South Asia alone. The latest estimates also suggest that there will be more than 10,000 additional child deaths per month during this period.

Compromised child health

The authors warn that the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to increase the risk of all forms of malnutrition. This, combined with disruption in health services and further deepening of economic and food crises, could compromise maternal and child health and mortality as well as have “intergenerational consequences for child growth and development, and life-long impacts on education, chronic disease risks, and overall human capital formation”.

The heads of the four multilateral agencies also issued a call for action to protect children’s right to nutrition in the face of COVID-19. They estimate that a minimum of US$2.4 billion is needed immediately to prevent and treat malnutrition. They have called upon governments to expand social protection services to ensure access to nutritious diets, scaling-up programmes to ensure early detection of child wasting, and ensuring nutritious meals for vulnerable children through home delivery, take-home rations, and cash or vouchers, as schools remain shut.

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