To mark World Humanitarian Day, Sabrina de Souza, Nutrition Advocacy Co-ordinator at RESULTS UK, discusses why acute malnutrition is an everyday emergency.

When you see an image of an emaciated child, what’s your instant reaction? You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that this child may be caught in the middle of some humanitarian emergency, such as a drought or a famine. It is a common outcome of such crises. Millions of children — 52 million to be exact — suffer from acute malnutrition, which causes rapid and severe weight loss, leaving children emaciated. In the most severe form — severe acute malnutrition — this condition can quickly result in death without treatment.

Credit: Sanjit Das/ RESULTS UK
Credit: Sanjit Das/ RESULTS UK

Thankfully, treatment is available. Cost-effective and high-impact approaches to treatment have revolutionized the fight against acute malnutrition. Through community-based approaches we are able to identify and treat more children than ever before. Energy-dense, micronutrient-enriched foods — known as RUFTs — can effectively treat children in a matter of weeks, without needing to be admitted to hospital.

Despite revolutions in treatment, 90 percent of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition (SAM) are unable to access the treatment they need. In 20 years, between 1990 and 2011, the global burden of acute malnutrition fell by just 11percent, from 58 million to 52 million. In sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers of acutely malnourished children actually grew during this period from 10 million to 13 million. This is due, in part, to the way that the treatment of acute malnutrition is delivered.

An everyday emergency

While acute malnutrition can occur during humanitarian emergencies, it commonly occurs in stable settings as well — making it an everyday emergency. The treatment of severe acute malnutrition is primarily delivered via emergency responses, which are typically short in duration. Therefore, children who are at risk of acute malnutrition in stable, non-emergency settings often struggle to access this life-saving treatment.

The supply of life-saving RUTFs is often restricted to periods of crisis. As a result, clinics can suffer from regular stock-outs — a major barrier to accessing treatment. Repeated stock-outs can contribute to community-based SAM treatment services as being perceived as unreliable, leading to significant increases in length of stay, absenteeism and children defaulting from treatment.

A staggering 1 million children die each year from this condition, despite the fact that it is preventable and treatable. If we hope to make a dent in this number, and safeguard the futures of millions of children, then more needs to be done to bridge the gap between short-term humanitarian funding and long-term sustainable development funding.

The UK: leading by example

Sustainable funding is needed so governments in high-burden countries can plan and implement long-term strategies to tackle acute malnutrition. The UK, which is among the top providers of humanitarian assistance, is making encouraging steps to fund multi-year nutrition-related programmes in a number of high-burden countries, including Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, Ethiopia and Yemen, which aim to bridge the gap between humanitarian aid and longer-term funding. However, more needs to be done and there is scope to replicate these much needed programmes in other high-burden countries that DFID works in.

The Generation Nutrition campaign encourages other donors, including Sweden, Turkey, the United States and EU institutions, which sit alongside the UK as the top providers of humanitarian assistance, to follow suit in recognising acute malnutrition as a development issue, not just a results of a humanitarian crisis, that requires sustainable funding for both the treatment and prevention of life-threatening condition.

What can you do?

Sign the Generation Nutrition petition calling on leaders all over the world to take urgent action to reduce the number of children suffering from acute malnutrition and safeguard the lives of millions of children.