UNICEF: Risk for global child malnutrition crisis now severe

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A primary school serves meals to students in in Kampong Cham province’s Kang Meas district May 17. MoEYS

The number of children with severe wasting was on the rise even before the Ukraine conflict plunged the world further into a global food crisis, UNICEF has warned, noting that in Cambodia, 10 per cent of children are actively affected by severe malnutrition.

Global instability has pushed the world to the brink of becoming a “virtual tinderbox” for “catastrophic” levels of severe malnutrition in children, with soaring food prices and pandemic-fuelled budget cuts set to drive up child hunger, according to UNICEF’s May 18 press release.

The organisation said that severe wasting – where children were too thin for their height – is the most immediate, visible and life-threatening form of malnutrition.

Worldwide, at least 13.6 million children under five suffer from severe wasting, resulting in 1 in 5 deaths among this age group, its Child Alert press release said.

In Cambodia, the funds to fight severe wasting are “far from sufficient” to cover rising needs, it said, citing National Roadmap for Child Wasting estimates that $25 million is needed to adequately respond to malnutrition crises in the next three years.

However, it said that 69 per cent ($17.2 million) of the funds needed to fully implement the roadmap have yet to be secured.

UNICEF representative in Cambodia Foroogh Foyouzat said nutrition plays a crucial role in early childhood development and has a profound impact on a child’s ability to survive, grow, learn and thrive.

“UNICEF is working with the Cambodian government to prioritise wasting in national policies and budget, in particular, [by] advocating for sustained financing of RUTF [ready-to-use therapeutic food] to treat severe childhood malnutrition,” she said.

She added that UNICEF was supporting the government in strengthening community outreach and interventions, so that cases of severe wasting could be identified early, and that caregivers were made aware of health and nutrition services in their area, and used them to prevent malnutrition.

In its press release, UNICEF called on governments, donors, and civil society organisations around the world to prioritise immediate budget allocations for RUTF and treatment for child wasting, and ensure funding for long-term needs of the most vulnerable children.

Chea Samnang, head of the water, sanitation and nutrition Technical Sub-Group, said malnutrition would cost Cambodia about $266 million a year, or 1.7 per cent of the country’s GDP, citing a 2016 study on the economic burden of malnutrition on pregnant women and children under the age of five in Cambodia.

He added that the Kingdom is continuing to face the problem of stunting, with 32 per cent of Cambodian children under the age of 5 suffering from lack of nutrition. Ten per cent of the child population is facing wasting and 24 per cent is underweight.

Stunting “is the most serious public health problem [in Cambodia], affecting not only the children and their families, but also the nation,” he said.

At the UN Food Summit in New York in 2021, Yim Chhay Ly, chairman of the Council for Agricultural and Rural Development, stated that the Cambodian government set four priorities to achieve its 2030 goal of developing a robust food system that provides food security and nutrition for the entire population, and which takes into account economic, social and environmental sustainability.

He said the priorities include promoting a healthy diet for all, enhancing the resilience of youth, women and the vulnerable, strengthening resilience in livelihoods and food systems, and strengthening governance to improve the food system.