The lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, and now the price hike of food, feed, fertilizer and fuel, are deepening poverty and worsening food insecurity and malnutrition for millions of people. The 15 worst-affected countries host 27 million children in acute food insecurity and at high risk of becoming wasted, a condition that puts them at risk of mortality and also affects their growth and development. Eight million children are estimated to be severely wasted now, with lasting impacts throughout their lives.
Life-saving interventions exist, but unless the underlying poverty and food insecurity issues that cause child wasting are simultaneously addressed, the potential for relapse and lasting effects are very real. The international community is responding with a surge of humanitarian and development assistance, which includes prevention focused actions against child wasting as part of this response – something that has not always been the case in the past.
With the Global Action Plan on Child Wasting, commissioned by the United Nations Secretary-General in 2019, five United Nations agencies – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP) and World Health Organization (WHO) – have come together to jointly respond through a multisystem approach that includes but goes beyond the immediate treatment focus.
They have committed to coordinate and concert their actions to ensure that households with children in situations of vulnerability are enabled to access safe and nutritious food and the services needed to prevent wasting and ensure that recovered children do not fall back into wasting. This includes enhancing access and quality of health services, clean drinking water, adequate sanitation and hygiene all-year-around and timely social protection to fill gaps in access to nutritious food and services.
FAO has a key role to play in supporting households with at-risk children and pregnant and lactating women and girls to prevent child wasting or to ensure that there are no relapses for children undergoing treatment. By including nutrition in emergency agriculture responses, FAO will support countries to build the resilience of the most vulnerable individuals and foster household livelihoods, thus breaking the cycle of distress that underlies child wasting.
We urgently need to complement life-saving interventions with a prevention strategy that will keep those recovered children out of wasting and prevent future cases in communities and households most at risk. The time is urgent to enable communities themselves to bridge the divide between short-term humanitarian assistance, and the prevention-focused development activities. It is only by sustainably decreasing acute food insecurity that we can prevent the scourge of child wasting in the longer term.