Saturday, April 17We Break the News

Coronavirus – Africa: COVID-19 and acute malnutrition – A double emergency

Spread the love

LONDON, United Kingdom, June 21, 2020/ — I take care of him and when food is served, I take his food and I feed him. Lawrence* is my little brother that I love very much, and I would do anything to help him.” Leolida, 12, Kenya


David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, has called a spade a spade and warned the global community of an oncoming hunger pandemic. As the Global Report on Food Crises 2020 shows, 135 million people are facing crisis levels of hunger or worse in 2020. The impact of the causes behind this figure are now compounded and worsened, astronomically, by the global health pandemic COVID-19.

COVID-19 threatens children’s rights everywhere, but the impact of the disease is felt most keenly in low-income countries where conflict, economic shocks and climate change already contribute to health problems and growing food insecurity for children and their families. Fragile health systems are in danger of becoming overwhelmed – are already being overwhelmed in some cases – and with the additional operational difficulties posed by COVID-19 such as travel restrictions and disruptions to supply chains and food systems, work to tackle ongoing hunger crises is at risk of being severely disrupted or scaled back. Lockdowns also mean loss of jobs and income, especially for those involved in informal economies. With government support available often limited, starvation is a very real threat for many families.

The likelihood is now that the secondary impacts of COVID-19 will, for many, be worse than the primary impact of the disease.

Our teams in East and Southern Africa have warned that as a result of COVID-19 mitigation measures the number ofpeople in East Africa who are facing food insecurity could more than double in the next three months from 20m to 43m and under five mortality could increase 45% as a result of disruption to basic health services.

Among those most at risk are those already at the pointy end of the hunger situation: those living in fragile and conflict-affected states, and those afflicted by acute malnutrition1. Those like Leolida, quoted above, and his brother Lawrence.


18 months ago, Save the Children launched a new initiative – the Global Malnutrition Initiative – to galvanise increased action to prevent and treat acute malnutrition in fragile and conflict-affected settings. This ambition, co-designed with colleagues in Kenya, Somalia and Yemen, rests on a couple of fundamentals:

  • We would use flexible fundingto treat children who would otherwise not be treated, where possible leveraging more funding from partners and donors to scale up delivery of life-saving treatment for severe and moderate acute malnutrition.
  • We would ringfence preciousfunding for research and innovation into more effective tools and techniques for treating and managing acute malnutrition at the community level, on the logic that investing in research now would enable us to save more lives – and conduct work more cost-effectively – down the line.


We’ve treated over 25,000 children and 8,000 mothers for acute malnutrition in Kenya, Somalia and Yemen – including Lawrence. We’re generating evidence alongside our partners to ensure the treatment of acute malnutrition can be delivered at the community level, with the eventual ambition of increasing the percentage of those who access treatment from 40% to 70%. We’re nearing the completion of this research in Kenya and are looking to test the new approaches in Somalia and Yemen too. We’re looking to link up our work on acute malnutrition and pneumonia, to tackle these interlinked problems holistically. And we’re getting set to advocate both for the revision of the World Health Organisation’s treatment guidelines to reflect our findings, and – in our priority countries – for the adoption of improved treatment methods into national-level policy and practice.

On the prevention piece, we’ve been working to set up research into understanding rates and causal factors for relapse (when children who have already been treated for malnutrition become malnourished once again). By understanding what causes relapse we plan to develop programme approaches to address these underlying factors. We have set the Global Malnutrition Initiative within Save the Children’s far wider food security and livelihoods, social protection and cash programming portfolio, aiming to ensure children and their families have the safety nets in place and the jobs they need to avoid falling into poverty and malnutrition in the first place.


The fact is that in spite of – or perhaps because of – COVID-19, the Global Malnutrition Initiative’s aim remains as critical as ever. Recognising the enormity of the treatment caseload at the moment, we’re ramping up efforts to ensure treatment is continued, for example by purchasing stocks of therapeutic foods in anticipation of supply disruption. We’re already directing early funds from a Global Malnutrition Initiative COVID-19 Emergency Appeal to this work. We’re working, alongside our partners, to ensure community health workers have the tools and training they need to deliver treatment safely. Our work with our partners is especially crucial as we seek to deliver a well-coordinated response across the sector. Finally, we’re ringfencing funding to safeguard our research and innovation ambitions for the longer-term.

And while the Global Malnutrition Initiative’s emergency response recognises and seeks to tackle the scale of the immediate need to treat children and prepare community health workers for the fight, it is just one part of Save the Children’s broader COVID-19 response, which includes efforts to build support for investment in the child benefits needed to keep children and their families out of poverty and hunger.


There’s no denying that the situation is pretty bleak – Save the Children UK’s Chief Executive Kevin Watkins has emphasised that rising levels of malnutrition will compound other health threats and contribute to the risk of a “lost decade for children” in the run up to 2030’s Sustainable Development Goal targets.

But we must continue the fight against global hunger alongside our response to COVID-19 to give children the best chance of survival. COVID-19 could result in the reversal of decades of progress in the global effort to tackle acute malnutrition. We cannot let this happen and are in the position to make a difference.

Hits: 1