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Rising child malnutrition rates to lead to 120,000 excess deaths during COVID-19 pandemic

kuarmungadd/iStock
kuarmungadd/iStock

By GUY DAVIES, ABC News

(LONDON) — The coronavirus pandemic is leading to a stark increase in child malnutrition across the world which could lead to at least 10,000 extra deaths per month by the end of the year, a UN Committee has warned.

The analysis, published in the medical journal The Lancet, warns that the “unprecedented global social and economic crisis” means 6.7 million more children could suffer from ‘wasting’ — a severe form of malnutrition — in low and middle income countries (LMICs) by the end of the year.

That represents a 14.3% increase in the number of children reportedly suffering from wasting before the pandemic, which stood at 47 million. Up to 80% of the increase in cases are expected to occur in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, according to the report, penned by the UN’s Standing Together for Nutrition consortium.

Malnutrition, the report warns, could make the effects of COVID-19 more severe in women and children. In LMICs that have pursued a policy of lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, UNICEF estimates that some countries have seen an estimated 75 to 100% reduction in “essential nutrition services coverage,” particularly in areas that were already experiencing humanitarian crises.

The report also suggests that rising rates of global poverty will contribute to the rise in malnutrition. More than 140 million more people could face “extreme poverty” — meaning less than $1.90 a day — by the end of the year, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. That represents a 20% increase from last year.

Although there is little data to assess how many excess deaths due to child malnutrition there have been made since the start of the year, the projected increase would see 128,605 additional deaths in children under five by the end of 2020.

The report is accompanied by an opinion piece calling for immediate action to combat malnutrition, signed by the heads of UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the World Food Program and the Director-General of the WHO. Humanitarian organizations are in need of $2.4 billion to help stop the rise in malnutrition rates by the end of the year, they said.

“It’s been seven months since the first COVID-19 cases were reported and it is increasingly clear that the repercussions of the pandemic are causing more harm to children than the disease itself,” Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director of UNICEF and signatory to the opinion piece, said in a statement. “Household poverty and food insecurity rates have increased. Essential nutrition services and supply chains have been disrupted. Food prices have soared. As a result, the quality of children’s diets has gone down and malnutrition rates will go up.”

“We cannot allow children to be the overlooked victims of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she added.

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