Acute food insecurity and malnutrition are at the highest levels they've ever been since the Global Network Against Food Crises began reporting on the issue in 2017. Conflict, extreme weather events, environmental disasters and economic turbulence — and more recently, COVID-19 — are the key drivers.
Some 149 million children — about one in five worldwide — are chronically malnourished. When not addressed, malnutrition puts children at greater risk of dying from common infections, increases the frequency and severity of such infections and delays recovery.
Food crises and threat of famine also cause displacement, which disrupts lives and interrupts childhoods. Millions of people have been displaced by food crises in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and northeast Nigeria in recent years.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted food systems and pushed millions of families into poverty, increasing food insecurity especially for already vulnerable children and families. Global coverage of nutrition services for children, adolescents and women in need also sharply declined, putting millions of children at risk.
Droughts exacerbated by climate change are another factor. West Africa’s Lake Chad has lost 90 percent of its water mass since 1963, for example, exacerbating hardships across the region. Severe drought in the Horn of Africa — the result of four consecutive dry seasons between 2020 and mid-2022 — doubled the number of people facing crisis levels of hunger in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, from over 10 million to over 23 million, sending child malnutrition rates soaring.
UNICEF works with partners to deliver humanitarian assistance to those impacted by food crises, screening and treating children suffering from malnutrition and providing safe water, sanitation and hygiene services to communities where these basic resources are in short supply, among other interventions.
UNICEF procures 75 to 80 percent of the world's supply of Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food, a treatment for children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, which is life-threatening. UNICEF will often lead global nutrition emergency preparedness and response efforts, coordinating with partners to reach the most vulnerable children and families in the hardest-to-reach areas. UNICEF also works with governments to strengthen local health and nutrition systems to reduce risks of malnutrition during a crisis.
Malnutrition is a "silent threat" to millions of children, says Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Director of the Office of Emergency Programs. "The damage it does can be irreversible, robbing children of their mental and physical potential."
Learn more about UNICEF's nutrition programs.