As child malnutrition mounts, UN agencies issue call to action

Tiny Bassma Mofeed fell ill when she was just a few months old, battling a soaring fever and mouth problems. Her mother, Hana Abdullah, tried to soothe her with cold compresses.

A resident of the southeastern city of Taiz, in conflict-torn Yemen—where access to affordable, nutritious food and health care is increasingly difficult—she had few other means to help her daughter recover.

“Life is hard,” mother Hana said. “We can hardly afford food.”

Like many other Yemeni children, Bassma suffered from acute malnutrition — a growing global crisis with lasting and sometimes deadly effects on young children, especially in some of the world’s poorest countries.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has now joined four other United Nations agencies (the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO)) to launch a call for action targeting more than a dozen of the hardest-hit countries, including Yemen.

The collective response comes under the UN Global Action Plan on Child Wasting, a joint effort to prevent, detect and treat wasting globally. The plan outlines the critical need for a multi-sectoral approach to acute malnutrition, including priority actions across food, health, nutrition, water and sanitation, and social protection systems.

Scaling up these actions as a coordinated package is essential to prevent and treat acute malnutrition in children among nutritionally vulnerable populations.

“More than 30 million children are acutely malnourished across the 15 worst-affected countries, so we must act now and act together,” says WFP’s Executive Director David Beasley. “It is critical that we collaborate to strengthen social safety nets and food assistance to ensure Specialized Nutritious Foods are available to the women and children who need them the most.”

Bassma was lucky. She was treated for her moderate acute malnutrition at a WFP-supported health clinic. Now a year old, she is thriving and learning to walk.

She counts among some 20 million young children and mothers worldwide suffering from devastating forms of malnutrition that WFP worked to treat and prevent in 2022. But the needs and the challenges — including conflict, climate change, skyrocketing food and fuel prices, and a growing humanitarian financing gap — are immense. Millions of vulnerable people fall through the cracks.

In Yemen alone, where hunger is mounting, almost half of all children under 5 — or roughly 2.2 million children — along with 1.3 million pregnant and nursing women face acute malnutrition.

Struggling to survive

In sub-Saharan Africa, South Sudan is seeing conflict, climate shocks and soaring food and fuel costs exacerbating already alarming rates of malnutrition.

“More than 60 percent of the population — including two million young children and pregnant and nursing mothers — are struggling to survive the peak of the lean season,” says Makena Walker, WFP’s Acting Country Director in South Sudan. “Young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women are the most vulnerable to acute malnutrition.”

Among them is 27-year-old Nyariek Bol, uprooted a decade ago by her country’s long-running conflict and now living in a camp for displaced people in the capital Juba. Pregnant with her second child, she was treated for malnutrition last year, receiving a nutrient-packed blend of fortified cereals from WFP.

“When I gave birth, the baby was healthy,” said Nyariek, whose son Tesloach was born last August weighing a robust 3.5 kilos.

Critical, timely nutrition support by WFP and our partners has helped keep many like Nyariek and her baby healthy. But South Sudan’s challenges — including being on the frontlines of the climate crisis — are daunting, and a funding shortfall has forced WFP to prioritize its humanitarian assistance to only the hungriest.

Today, some 1.4 million children in South Sudan suffer from malnutrition. More than 100,000 risk dying if not treated.

In Ethiopia, too, unrest and climate shocks are pushing hunger and malnutrition to alarming levels, devastating many communities and livelihoods.

In the country’s southern Borena zone, a punishing drought has wiped out livestock that is a vital source of food and income for the area’s pastoral community.

The fallout has taken an especial toll on young children like 18-month-old Liben Kefela, whose family eats only a single bowl of maize porridge once daily.

“Our livestock have perished and the surviving ones very weak and have no market value,” says Liben’s mother Shedole, whose son was so weak that she took him to hospital.

Diagnosed with malnutrition, Liben is receiving WFP’s specialized nutrition-packed food supplements. His mother hopes her children will grow up healthy and well educated. But for now, life is a matter of survival.

“Without this support, only God knows what the fate of my child will be,” she says of the WFP assistance. “I had no other means to help him.”

Buffering shocks

There are some answers, however. In Bahr El-Gazal in central Chad, where recurrent food and nutrition crises are common, the harsh climate, poor rainfall, insecurity and border closures are destroying livelihoods.

But the WFP-supported Tchiworou Health Center has proven a key buffer against further hardship, by delivering health and nutrition services to nearby communities.

“An integrated package of services is important: good hygiene practices, access to clean water and sanitation, along with care and feeding for young children — including promoting breastfeeding for infants — all help reduce the incidence of acute malnutrition,” says WFP Chad nutrition officer Haisset Fanga.

Still, in many countries where WFP works, sharply rising prices threaten hard-won gains in building longer-term food and nutrition security and resilience. Across the Central Sahel region where Chad is located, for example, an estimated 6 million children faced acute malnutrition last year.

But in nearby Burkina Faso, a WFP project is strengthening national food systems so people — especially young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women — can access and afford a nutritious, diverse diet.

Supported by the European Union, the initiative — also rolled out in Mali and Niger — offers a comprehensive approach to the Central Sahel’s food and nutrition crisis, by also targeting the production, transformation and marketing of nutritious foods for vulnerable communities.

“We can help women and children improve their nutritional status and strengthen systems to help prevent malnutrition in future generations,” says Simon Kiendrebeogo, a WFP nutrition associate for the project in Kaya, a city northeast of Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou.

The project reaches women like Sawadogo Mamounata, who receives WFP vouchers to help her buy nutritious, fortified food. This keeps her healthy and strong while she is breastfeeding and helps her young children to thrive.

“There is a change in my children, I think it’s linked to the fortified flour we receive,” Sawadogo says. “The children are much more fit than before. My youngest one is already walking at 10 months.”

Source: World Food Programme