By Vatican News staff writer
Nearly 2.3 million children under the age of five in Yemen are projected to suffer from severe malnutrition in 2021, four United Nations agencies said on Thursday. Of that number, an estimated 400,000 could die if they urgent steps are not taken, they warned.
A recent report from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) released on Thursday by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) and their partners, highlighted a marked increase in acute and severe malnutrition by 16 and 22 percent respectively, among children under five years old.
In the face of the grim statistics, the UN agencies expressed concerns that these are the highest levels recorded since the escalation of conflict in the country in 2015.
Effects of malnutrition on children
“Malnutrition damages a child’s physical and cognitive development, especially during the first two years of a child’s life,” explains a statement on the UNICEF website. This, it adds, is “largely irreversible, perpetuating illness, poverty and inequality.”
In this regard, preventing malnutrition and addressing its devastating impact begins “with good maternal health,” the statement said, lamenting however, that “around 1.2 million pregnant or breastfeeding women are projected to be acutely malnourished in 2021.”
The statement further noted that acute malnutrition among children and mothers in Yemen has increased with each year of conflict, with a significant spike in 2020 driven by diseases like diarrhoea, cholera and respiratory tract infections.
Diseases and a poor health environment are key drivers of childhood malnutrition,” explained 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,” Ghebreyesus added.
Children: disproportionately-affected victims of conflict
Of particular concern to the UN agencies is the long-running conflict in the country.
The UN agencies noted that years of armed conflict and economic decline, coupled with a funding shortfall in humanitarian response funding and the ongoing pandemic 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 UN agencies said.
Further compounding the already grim situation, the statement explained, Yemen struggles with high rates of communicable diseases, limited access to routine immunization and health services as well as inadequate sanitation and hygiene systems. The Covid-19 pandemic has also put extra strain on the country’s fragile health care system, draining resources and resulting in fewer people seeking medical care.
Appeal for urgent action
“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.”
FAO Director-General, QU Dongyu added that families in the country have been in the grip of conflict for too long, and more recent threats like the Covid-19 only adds to their relentless plight. He stressed that “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.”
Further expressing concern about the situation in the country, WFP Executive Director David Beasley noted that “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.”
“These numbers are yet another cry for help from Yemen where each malnourished child also means a family struggling to survive,” added Beasley.
Humanitarian funding shortfall
The UN agencies remarked the critical underfunding of humanitarian response needed to provide support for Yemeni citizens. Last year, the statement noted, the Humanitarian Response plan received USD 1.9 billion of the USD 3.4 billion required.
The dire situation for Yemen’s youngest children and mothers, the agencies warned, means “any disruption 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.”