West and Central Africa: More than 15 million cases of acute malnutrition expected in 2020

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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) have warned.

This represents a 20 per cent increase from estimates made in January 2020. The warning comes after an analysis of the combined impact of food insecurity and COVID-19 on acute malnutrition in 19 countries in the region.

Conflict and armed violence have led to massive population displacements and drastically limited access to basic social services, leading 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 COVID-19 pandemic, 4.5 million cases of acute malnutrition were expected in 2020 in these 6 countries. Today, 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,” said 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 are critical for child survival and long-term development.”

Several factors 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, fragile 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 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,” said 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 ensure 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.

In northern Mali, for example, WFP and UNICEF are joining efforts and resources to treat and prevent maternal and child malnutrition and reinforce good feeding practices. This includes screening children for malnutrition as part of an initiative that promotes early detection of malnutrition in children by mothers and families, using a Mid Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) screening tape. In addition, it allows for the referral of moderate and severe acute malnutrition cases to health facilities, supported by both agencies. Prevention activities include sensitization sessions on infant and young child feeding practices, supported by UNICEF and complemented by the provision of vouchers to women to exchange for nutritious foods available in the market, facilitated by WFP.