More than 15 million cases of acute malnutrition are expected in children under the age of five in West and Central Africa in 2020 – one-third of cases in the most severe form – if adequate measures are not urgently put in place, UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP) warned with a press release.
This represents a 20 percent addition from estimates made in January 2020. The alert comes after an analysis of the combined influence of food insecurity and COVID-19 on acute malnutrition in 19 countries in the region.
Conflict and armed violence have driven to massive population displacements and drastically limited access to basic social services, leading to 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 Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, 4.5 million cases of acute malnutrition were expected in 2020 in these 6 countries. With growing insecurity and COVID-19, that number has jumped to almost 5.4 million.
“Children suffering from severe acute malnutrition are at higher risk of COVID-19-related complications,” stated Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “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 is critical for child survival and long-term development,” she added
Several circumstances 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 diarrhea, frail health systems, poor access to clean water, and sanitation, and chronic poverty.
Adding to these factors, containment measures put in place in response to the COVID-19 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 coronavirus 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,” stated Chris Nikoi, WFP Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “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.”
WFP and UNICEF are working with governments and partners to secure 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.