The United Nations Children's Fund
(UNICEF) says that aid agencies treated a record number of children in the Sahel region of West Africa for life-threatening severe acute malnutrition this year. Though many lives were saved, experts say that episodes of severe acute malnutrition in children have irreversible, life-long impacts on health, which are further compounded by widespread chronic malnutrition in the region.
An estimated 1.1 million children living in Africa’s Sahel region suffered from severe acute malnutrition in 2012 as erratic rainfall and severe food shortages aggravated already high rates of chronic malnutrition.
UNICEF reports that approximately 850,000 of these children will have received emergency food aid and other medical treatment by the end of the year.
“We’ve done a big efforts, all of us, and this is what we have achieved. Which of course is big, but of course that also means some children, unfortunately, not been given treatment,” said UNICEF’s acting regional director, Manuel Fontaine.
UNICEF says undernourishment contributes to more than half of child deaths in the Sahel. Malnutrition makes a child more vulnerable to otherwise treatable illnesses like diarrhea or malaria.
UNICEF says without proper treatment, a child with severe acute malnutrition is nine times more likely to die than a well-nourished child.
Real success, Fontaine said, would be not having to treat these children at all.
“Those children, basically, shouldn’t have been there in the first place and we need to be able to assist them so that they don’t have to come through that point of being severely malnourished,” he said.
Felicite Tchibindat, the regional nutrition advisor for UNICEF, said that preventing malnutrition is particularly crucial during the first two years of life.
“You see children that are malnourished at an early age have a high risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and all that kind. You have the brain damage, which is irreversible, because at that time you need quality nutrients, and care, which they don’t have," she explained. "In the long run, they have less in terms of years of schooling, sometimes 1.5 years less. Also, there is an impact on their IQ.”
Stunted growth due to malnutrition is also a major problem.
A 2012 study by World Vision
and Save the Children
found that an average two-and-a-half-year-old girl in Niger is 8.5 cm shorter than the average height for that age. The study said that many stunted children will never regain the lost height or weight, and that the effects of malnutrition can pass to the next generation with stunted mothers more likely to have low-birth-weight babies.
Tchibindat says malnutrition has an economic impact as well.
“The World Bank has calculated that two to three percent of the GDP is lost each year because nothing is done in preventing malnutrition and that is quite a lot. And if we’re talking about the world, which is constrained by the resources … And they calculated in some countries that when the child was malnourished at an early age…at the adult age they have a 20 to 40 percent less earning [potential],” she said.
Prevention is also less expensive. The U.N. has found that to treat a child with severe acute malnutrition costs between $80 and $120, while preventative measures can cost as little as $30 per child.
“It’s becoming quite costly and people really need to address that. And the way of addressing it is that you have to address that before the child reaches the age of two. After that, it’s too late. It’s a very short window of opportunity. But that can be very high cost effective,” Tchibindat said.
UNICEF said malnutrition is not just about not getting enough food. It’s also about not getting the right food, particularly during those first two years.
UNICEF is working to promote good practices, such as exclusive breastfeeding, and sanitation efforts to ensure clean drinking water, as well as education to teach parents the importance of feeding their children protein and vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables.