UNICEF warned on Monday that an additional 6.7 million children under the age of five could become dangerously undernourished this year as a result of wasting amidst the socio-economic impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Wasting is a life-threatening form of malnutrition, which makes children too thin and weak, and puts them at greater risk of dying, poor growth, development and learning.
According to UNICEF, 47 million children were already wasted in 2019 even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and without urgent action, the global number of children suffering from wasting could reach almost 54 million over the course of the year.
"This would bring global wasting to levels not seen this millennium", UNICEF stated.
As per an analysis by the international medical journal The Lancet, 80 percent of the 6.7 million children that may be subject to wasting would be from sub-Saharan Africa and South Aisa, of which over half would be from South Asia alone.
The Lancet's analysis estimated that the prevalence of wasting among children under the age of five could increase by 14.3 percent in low-and middle-income countries in 2020, due to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19.
Such an increase in child malnutrition would translate into over 10,000 additional child deaths each month, with over 50 percent of these deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.
Citing the analysis, UNICEF reported that there could be 128,605 additional deaths in children under the age of five over the year, as per current projections.
"It has 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", said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
"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".
UN agencies warned that child wasting is only "the tip of the iceberg" as COVID-19 will also increase other forms of malnutrition in children and women, including stunting, micronutrient deficiencies, and overweight and obesity as a result of poorer diets and the disruption of nutrition services.
UNICEF's reports from the early months of the pandemic suggested an overall decrease of 30 percent in the coverage of essential, and often life-saving, nutrition services.
Noting that these disruptions have reached 75 to 100 percent in certain countries under lockdown measures, UNICEF highlighted that over 250 million children globally are missing the full benefits of vitamin A supplementation due to COVID-19.
UNCEF revealed that humanitarian agencies "immediately need USD 2.4 billion to protect maternal and child nutrition in the most vulnerable countries from now until the end of the year".
The heads of United Nations agencies appealed to governments, the public, donors and the private sector to protect children's right to nutrition by safeguarding access to nutritious, safe and affordable diets, investing decisively in support for maternal and child nutrition, re-activating and scaling up services for the early detection and treatment of child wasting, maintaining the provision of nutritious and safe school meals, and expanding social protection to safeguard access to nutritious diets.
"We cannot allow children to be the overlooked victims of the COVID-19 pandemic", said Fore.
"We must simultaneously think both short and long term, so that we not only address the challenges posed by the pandemic and its secondary impacts on children, but also chart a brighter future for children and young people".