Acute malnutrition threatens half of children under five in Yemen in 2021: UN

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Updated: February 28, 2021

Nearly 2.3 million children under the age of five in Yemen are projected to suffer from acute malnutrition in 2021, four United Nations agencies warned today. Of these, 400,000 are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition and could die if they do not receive urgent treatment.

The new figures, from the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) Acute Malnutrition report released today by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund), the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners, mark an increase in acute malnutrition and severe acute malnutrition of 16 per cent and 22 per cent, respectively, among children under five years from 2020. 

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The agencies also warned that these were among the highest levels of severe acute malnutrition recorded in Yemen since the escalation of conflict in 2015.

Malnutrition damages a child’s physical and cognitive development, especially during the first two years of a child’s life. It is largely irreversible, perpetuating illness, poverty and inequality.

Preventing malnutrition and addressing its devastating impact starts with good maternal health, yet around 1.2 million pregnant or breastfeeding women in Yemen are projected to be acutely malnourished in 2021.

Years of armed conflict and economic decline, the COVID-19 pandemic and a severe funding shortfall for the humanitarian response are pushing exhausted communities to the brink, with rising levels of food insecurity. Many families are having to resort to reducing the quantity or quality of the food they eat, and in some cases, families are forced to do both.

“The increasing number of children going hungry in Yemen should shock us all into action,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “More children will die with every day that passes without action. Humanitarian organizations need urgent predictable resources and unhindered access to communities on the ground to be able to save lives.”

“Families in Yemen have been in the grip of conflict for too long, and more recent threats such as COVID-19 have only been adding to their relentless plight,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu. “Without security and stability across the country, and improved access to farmers so that they are provided with the means to resume growing enough and nutritious food, Yemen’s children and their families will continue to slip deeper into hunger and malnutrition.”

“These numbers are yet another cry for help from Yemen where each malnourished child also means a family struggling to survive” said WFP Executive Director David Beasley. “The crisis in Yemen is a toxic mix of conflict, economic collapse and a severe shortage of funding to provide the life-saving help that’s desperately needed. But there is a solution to hunger, and that’s food and an end to the violence. If we act now, then there is still time to end the suffering of Yemen’s children.”

Diseases and a poor health environment are key drivers of childhood malnutrition,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “At the same time, malnourished children are more vulnerable to diseases including diarrhea, respiratory infections and malaria, which are of great concern in Yemen, among others. It is a vicious and often deadly cycle, but with relatively cheap and simple interventions, many lives can be saved.”

Acute malnutrition among young children and mothers in Yemen has increased with each year of conflict with a significant deterioration during 2020 driven by high rates of disease, such as diarrhoea, respiratory tract infections and cholera, and rising rates of food insecurity. Among the worst hit governorates are Aden, Al Dhale, Hajjah, Hodeida, Lahj, Taiz and Sana’a City, which account for over half of expected acute malnutrition cases in 2021.

Today, Yemen is one of the most dangerous places in the world for children to grow up. The country has high rates of communicable diseases, limited access to routine immunization and health services for children and families, poor infant and young child feeding practices, and inadequate sanitation and hygiene systems.  

Meanwhile, the already fragile health care system is facing the collateral impact of COVID-19, which has drained meagre resources and resulted in fewer people seeking medical care.

The dire situation for Yemen’s youngest children and mothers means any disruptions to humanitarian services – from health to water, sanitation and hygiene, to nutrition, food assistance and livelihoods support – risk causing a deterioration in their nutrition status.

The humanitarian response remains critically underfunded. In 2020, the Humanitarian Response plan received US$1.9 billion of the US$3.4 billion required.

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