A new analysis by the International Rescue Committee finds that the number of children receiving treatment for malnutrition has decreased across conflict-affected countries, despite increasing food insecurity reported globally, indicating that life-saving treatments have been less accessible to families during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The number of patients seeking care for malnutrition at IRC-supported clinics has decreased as compared to last year since COVID-19 started spreading by 20% in Somalia, 19% in South Sudan, 15% in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and 12.5% in Yemen.
Despite the risk of increased rates of acute malnutrition, the Global Humanitarian Response Plan remains deeply underfunded, with only 3% of the amount requested for nutrition -- $247 million -- committed thus far.
The knock-on effects of COVID-19 have led to a global food insecurity crisis, with 265 million people projected to experience life-threatening levels of hunger this year alone. Meanwhile, movement restrictions and other safety measures put into place to combat the virus, coupled with fears of contracting COVID-19, have made health and nutrition services less accessible to families. This is especially troubling among the most vulnerable. An analysis carried out by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) found an alarming drop in the number of people arriving at nutrition clinics at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to 2019.
In Somalia, the analysis indicated a 20% decline, compared to the same period in 2019, in severe acute malnutrition cases in IRC-supported clinics even though experts warn of a 64% increase in people facing a food crisis. From March to August 2020 in South Sudan, there was a more than 19% decrease in the number of patients seeking care for severe and moderate acute malnutrition, compared to the same period in 2019. This is despite figures that show the number of malnourished children in the country was 1.3 million as of September 2020.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the analysis found a 15% drop in children being treated for malnutrition this year even though there is an alarming 64% rise in the number of people facing a food crisis since February. In Yemen, IRC data found a 12.5% decline during peak COVID-19 months compared to the same period in 2019 for children being treated for malnutrition, despite warnings that food insecurity and hunger have increased by 60% since April of this year.
Even before the pandemic, access to health facilities and service providers was a challenge in conflict and crisis settings. COVID-19 related disruptions, including those rightfully implemented to curb coronavirus infection rates, have further exacerbated these access issues alongside other factors such as continued conflict and insecurity, worsening economic crises, flooding, and more.
Mesfin Tessema, Senior Technical Health Director at IRC says,
"When any crisis hits, we know food insecurity becomes a real risk that needs to be quickly and effectively mitigated against. The measures put into place to stop the spread of COVID-19, alongside supply chain disruptions and fears of getting sick, have led to more people not only going hungry, but less likely to seek and receive the care they need. COVID-19 is compounding an already dire situation in East Africa where multiple drivers - conflict, severe weather shocks, including record breaking flooding and alternating droughts, and locusts - have left 18.7 million people facing food insecurity."
Year after year, no less than 7% of the world's children under the age of five -- approximately 47 million children in 2019-- suffer from a dangerous form of malnutrition referred to as acute malnutrition, or wasting. Most often seen in conflict-affected states, this form of malnutrition increases a child's mortality risk between 3 and 11x. Tragically, malnutrition underlies nearly half of all child deaths under the age of five globally.
With food insecurity being exacerbated by COVID-19, not only are more people in need of care, but families who have already seen progress now risk seeing gains rolled back. Acute malnutrition is now projected to rise 14%, an astonishing increase, and four countries--Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, and the DRC are at risk of famine. The heads of United Nations agencies have indicated that $2.4 billion in additional investment is needed to truly protect children by preventing and treating acute malnutrition, and the Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP) for COVID-19 has requested $247 million for essential nutrition response. Despite this, there is a multi-billion dollar funding gap, and to date, only 3% -- approximately $7.7 million -- has been funded.
To support children suffering from malnutrition during COVID-19, the IRC has adapted its programming to reach as many people as possible. This includes increasing the provisions of fortified ready-to-use foods to households so that families will not have to return to clinics on a weekly basis. Rather than holding mass screenings, which could increase risk of infection, the IRC is equipping families with measurement tapes to monitor the nutritional status of their children at home. This proactive approach also eliminates the need for families to frequently travel with sick children for long distances to clinics. The IRC also continues to support the simplified, combined protocol so that all children--regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of malnutrition--are treated in one program through full recovery. Partners across the sector are similarly adapting programs to ensure children receive the care they need during the pandemic.
To continue to reach the most vulnerable during this pandemic, further support is urgently needed for both the short and long-term. Donors must fulfill the needs outlined in the GHRP to mitigate against both decreased reporting and rising malnutrition rates. The global community must also make ambitious, long-term commitments to nutrition at the 2021 Nutrition for Growth Summit, including a doubling of commitments toward nutrition-specific interventions. To draw further attention to this deep and increasing need for nutrition funding, the IRC and partners released a statement calling on global donors to increase their commitment to nutrition to avert increased child mortality due to rising rates of malnutrition and hunger during the pandemic. There are still many unknowns surrounding COVID-19, but the concerns around increasing food insecurity, hunger, and rates of acute malnutrition are clear.