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Malnutrition: A major cause of death in children

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Six million children are affected by life-threatening severe acute malnutrition in West and Central Africa. Multiple factors including land and crop degradation, periodic droughts and weather-related shocks, poverty, limited access to basic food staples and essential services, and population growth, contribute to emergency levels of malnutrition in the region.

Malnutrition is not only about lack of food; a combination of other causes lead to malnutrition in children, including: diet at home, illnesses such as malaria and water-borne diseases, limited access to clean water and sanitation infrastructure, and knowledge about safe hygiene practices, lack of access to health services, and inadequate child feeding practices.

At a glance

Malnutrition affects children’s lives

Malnutrition puts children’s lives and future at risk. Timely treatment can save children’s lives; however, those who remain untreated are at risk of dying, delayed growth and impaired brain development – which impacts learning capacity and school performance, and labour force participation. Malnourished children also become more vulnerable to childhood diseases such as diarrhea and acute respiratory infections and may grow dependent of a lifetime of health care.

Beyond the immediate nutritional and health impacts of the nutrition crises in the West and Central Africa region, children’s education in the region has been disrupted by conflict and population displacements, exposing them to greater risks.

Treating malnutrition

The vast majority of children with severe acute malnutrition respond extremely well to treatment with Ready-to-use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) such as Plumpy’Nut, a fortified peanut butter-like paste containing fats, dietary fiber, carbohydrates, proteins and essential micronutrients. Calculations by UNICEF for several Sahel countries show average recovery rates of between 85 and 90 per cent during 2018.

Among the challenges, however, are the fact that only about half of all health facilities offer SAM treatment, supplies of RUTF are not always adequate to meet needs, some children are not brought back for follow-up, and many – far too many – do not arrive at treatment centres in time to save their lives.

UNICEF works to prevent and treat malnutrition

  • In the short term, we work to address immediate needs to avoid a deterioration of the situation and prevent mortality in young children by supporting early detection and care for children suffering from severe acute malnutrition and providing ready-to-use therapeutic food for their treatment. We also provide access to water, sanitation and hygiene in health facilities and communities; and educate families on how to prepare and provide nutritious food to their children.

  • In the longer-term, we create the conditions for people to become self-reliant again, by promoting the availability, access and use of local food resources; improving health and other social services; promoting optimal infant and young child feeding practices so that households, communities and national systems are better prepared to prevent and deal with similar shocks in the future.

  • For a sustainable response against malnutrition, UNICEF advocates for increased national commitments in nutrition funding and policy actions such as including the treatment of severe acute malnutrition as part of national public health response and spending.

Innovations that save lives

UNICEF and its partners work across sectors to scale up the response in all countries through integrated programmes involving the health, education, protection and water and sanitation sectors. For instance, in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, nutrition screening is now a part of seasonal malaria prevention campaigns. In Chad, Mauritania and Niger mobile clinics offering health and nutrition services were established to reach populations and communities in remote locations. In areas of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, mothers are being taught to assess their children’s nutritional status with a simple tool to improve early detection of acute malnutrition.