The alarm has sounded: famine threatens the central Sahel and the Horn of Africa. In both regions, UNICEF predicts that some 6.4 million children will experience severe wasting, the painfully precise term for what happens to children with severe acute malnutrition. Globally, severe wasting is responsible for one in five deaths among children under the age of 5, making it one of the most serious threats to children in the world today.
But unlike many global problems, the solution to child wasting is glaringly obvious.
A daily dose of low-cost ready-to-use therapeutic food – RUTF – will save the vast majority of children suffering from wasting, if we reach them in time.
But at least two out of three children suffering from wasting do not have access to this cost-effective and life-saving treatment. We must remove the obstacles that stand in their way.
Global and national nutrition leaders should start by simplifying treatment protocols and putting children and families at the center of care. In many places, nutrition programs still treat children with moderate and severe wasting with different products, through different supply chains, at different delivery points, with complex admission criteria.
Trials show that using a single product, RUTF, and simplified approaches for children with moderate and severe wasting, is just as effective as more complex standard protocols – and costs less to deliver . Experience from heavily affected countries shows that simplified treatment can achieve recovery rates of over 95%. And there is plenty of evidence to show that centering prevention and treatment in the community can increase access and impact.
As a sector, we must also take scale seriously by supporting national and community efforts to reach every child at risk. International organizations like ours are already working closely with governments and partners in heavily affected countries – as we are working urgently at the moment in the Sahel and Horn of Africa regions. But as the threat level increases, we must fully align our technical assistance, operational support and resources with comprehensive, nationally led strategies. We call on our partners to join us in this process.
The Global Action Plan against Child Wasting was developed to stimulate and support country action, using costed operational roadmaps to drive progress in more than 20 high-burden countries. National programs are already using these maps to meet the rapidly increasing needs in the Central Sahel and the Horn of Africa – our top priority. But organizations like ours must help accelerate their implementation so we can reach every child with life-saving treatment.
Finally, donors and country governments must accumulate funding. Since July, with an initial investment of US$200 million, governments, philanthropists and private donors have committed US$377 million to respond to this growing crisis.
This urgently needed support will go a long way to help, but it is still far from the $1.2 billion we need to reach the most vulnerable children.
At recent G7 and Nutrition for Growth summits, government and private donors pledged billions for nutrition and food security – a welcome development.
But wheat and soy will not cure wasted children. They need RUTF and they need it now. Nutrition programs can quickly close the gap if these donors allocate a fraction of their pledged funds to fight wasting in the central Sahel and the Horn of Africa.
Kids are hurting now – and it’s inexcusable to let proven solutions sit on the shelf, especially when funding is on the table.
Of course, the best solution to child wasting is to prevent it in the first place. The 1,000 days from conception to year two is a window of opportunity. Ensuring pregnant women have access to good nutrition and care, encouraging exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and supporting better foods and feeding practices for young children are mission critical.
But when prevention fails, proper treatment is the only way to save children’s lives. We may not have averted famine in Africa, but we can prevent children from dying painfully by providing proven solutions now.
David Miliband is President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. From 2007 to 2010, Miliband served as the UK’s 74th Foreign Secretary.
Catherine Russell is the 8th Executive Director of UNICEF, overseeing the organization’s work for children in more than 190 countries and territories. Prior to joining UNICEF, Ms. Russell served in the US government as an aide to President Joe Biden and Director of the Office of Presidential Personnel at the White House.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.
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