Two United Nations Agencies, United Nations Children’s Funds (UNICEF) and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) have warned that children in West and Central Africa may be hit with unprecedented cases of acute malnutrition as direct impact of food insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a joint statement issued today, both agencies revealed that an estimated 15.4 million cases of acute malnutrition in children under five years old are expected in 2020 in the two sub-regions if adequate measures are not put in place now.
This, according to an analysis of the combined impact of food insecurity and COVID-19 on acute malnutrition in 19 countries of the region represents a 20 per cent increase from earlier estimates in January 2020.
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, fragile health systems, poor access to clean water and sanitation, and chronic poverty are some factors that currently threaten the nutritional status of children under five in West and Central Africa.
UNICEF and WFP noted that a combination of these factors and the COVID-19 pandemic containment measures have led to disruptions in food production and distribution, in health and humanitarian supply chains, as well as a slow-down of economic activities.
In their statement, the UN agencies stated that the pandemic has had indirect negative impacts on food systems, households’ income and food security, and the provision of treatment against malnutrition, making it more difficult for populations to maintain healthy diets, optimal infant and young child feeding practices that hinders their access to essential nutrition services.
Meanwhile, it has been established that the coronavirus disease is exacerbating 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-19 pandemic, 4.5 million cases were anticipated to suffer from acute malnutrition in 2020, in these 6 countries. Today, with growing insecurity and COVID-19, that number has jumped to almost 5.4 million. This is as conflict and armed violence have led to massive population displacements and drastically limited access to basic social services, causing child malnutrition to increase to unprecedented levels.
According to UNICEF’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Marie-Pierre Poirier, “Children suffering from severe acute malnutrition are at higher risk of COVID-19-related complications.”
Poirier however pointed out that good nutrition for children, starting from their early days protects them against illnesses and infections, while also supporting 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,” she stated.
On his part, WFP Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Chris Nikoi said thousands of families will be unable to provide their children with the nutritious food needed for their proper growth and development.
“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,” he said.
WFP and UNICEF are working with governments and partners to ensure the continuation of essential services.