Press Release

Immediate Action Required to Prevent Malnutrition Crisis Among Children in Zambia - UNICEF

New survey data reveal looming food and nutrition concerns for 52,000 children under the age of 5 and pregnant and breastfeeding women in six provinces

NEW YORK (June 24, 2024) – Almost 52,000 children under the age of five in the 84 drought-affected districts in Zambia are expected to fall into severe wasting – the deadliest form of malnutrition – within the next 12 months if urgent preventive measures are not put into place. Another 276,000 children under age five will have moderate wasting.

The data taken from a recent SMART survey commissioned by the National Food and Nutrition Commission and supported by UNICEF comes as Zambia grapples with prolonged drought. Children in Western, Southern, Central, and North-Western provinces – 4 out of 10 of Zambia’s regions – are at particularly high risk of becoming malnourished, as many families already face hunger and are unable to put nutritious food on the table.

"We are at a critical juncture. The findings of this SMART survey highlight the immediate need for preventive measures to avoid a severe malnutrition crisis,” said National Food and Nutrition Commission Executive Director Dr Muntanga Mapani. “The data clearly show that without timely intervention, we could see a significant rise in malnutrition rates, particularly among children under five and pregnant and breastfeeding women.”

According to the findings, over half of the households in five of the six provinces surveyed are experiencing moderate to severe hunger. Western Province is hardest hit, with over 88 percent of households experiencing hunger, and almost half facing severe hunger, putting children at risk of malnutrition and illness.

The SMART survey echoes the findings of a recent UNICEF report titled Child Food Poverty: Nutrition Deprivation in Early Childhood, which found that 24 percent of children under the age of five in Zambia are experiencing severe child food poverty, meaning they’re fed just two or fewer food groups per day. Children who consume such severely deprived diets face up to 50 per cent increased risk of becoming wasted, and this could be hastened by the severe drought conditions in the country.

"Children suffering from malnutrition are 10 times more likely to die than well-nourished children. If we do not act now, there may be devastating and long-lasting effects on the health, nutrition, and development of Zambia's youngest and most vulnerable population,” said UNICEF Director of Global Communication and Advocacy Naysan Sahba. “We must urgently expand access to nutritious and diverse food, health services, and water, hygiene and sanitation services in order to avert a looming crisis.”

The SMART survey, conducted in 6 out of 10 provinces in May 2024 during harvest season, found that overall current wasting rates are relatively low, below 5 percent. However, the rate in Southern Province is 6.2 percent — more than double the rate during the 2019/2020 drought. Wasting rates could rise during the 2024/2025 lean season when access to food will become even more restricted.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women are also at risk of wasting, according to the survey. Over the next year, almost 112,000 are estimated to have wasting, with nearly 13,000 to suffer from the most severe form. Low breastfeeding rates are also a cause for concern. While exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life helps protect babies from sickness, rates are worryingly low across many provinces, especially the urban parts of Lusaka.

The survey also revealed significant gaps in basic water, hygiene, and sanitation facilities, increasing the health risks of malnourished children and pregnant and breastfeeding mothers whose weakened immune systems struggle to fight off waterborne diseases. For example, over 60 percent of people in Central and Western provinces and a quarter of urban Lusaka households lack reliable access to safe water. Scarcity of handwashing stations and improved sanitation facilities exacerbates the issue. The findings already indicate troubling health trends among children, with widespread diarrhea affecting up to 33 percent in some areas.

Timely management of moderate wasting is crucial to prevent a rapid transition to severe wasting. To avert a nutrition crisis, UNICEF and partners urge immediate action to:

  • Prioritize mothers and children: Ensure food distribution and cash assistance programs for pregnant and breastfeeding women and children under five, providing calorie and protein-rich food.
  • Combat nutrient deficiencies: Provide nutrient-rich supplements to pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children, as well as early intervention to prevent moderate wasting from progressing to severe wasting.
  • Expand healthcare access: Increase treatment capacity at all primary healthcare facilities to treat anticipated increase in malnutrition cases during the lean season.
  • Improve WASH services: Ensure households and healthcare facilities have access to sustainable and climate-resilient clean water, sanitation and handwashing services.

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Learn more about UNICEF's work in Zambia. 

For more information please contact:
Jenna Buraczenski, UNICEF USA, (917) 720-1432,