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Child deaths from wasting are predictable and preventable: WHO chief

Speaking during a session on creating new approaches to ending preventable child deaths, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the world is far from reaching these objectives.

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Worldwide, 45 million children under five are wasted, meaning they are dangerously thin for their height, and roughly one million die each year from the condition, the Director-General of the World Health Organization told the Global Food Security Summit held on Monday in London.

The United Kingdom government organized the day-long conference, which brought together representatives from more than 20 nations to support initiatives to end hunger and malnutrition in accordance with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Far off track

Speaking during a session on creating new approaches to ending preventable child deaths, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the world is far from reaching these objectives.

“By the time we have finished our meeting today, about 900 children will have died because they don’t have enough food or care – children whose lives have only just begun,” he said.

Of the 45 million under-fives who are wasted, more than a third have the most severe form of the condition, with the greatest risk of dying.

Weak and wasting

Tedros explained that a child who is moderately or severely wasted is 11 times more likely to die than a child who is not malnourished, often because their body is too weak to fight back against diarrhoea and pneumonia.

Although the factors that drive wasting vary, they are largely a result of poverty and rising food prices, preventable diseases, inadequate access to healthcare, and a lack of clean water, sanitation and hygiene.

“Conflict, the climate crisis, natural disasters and resource depletion all dramatically increase the risk of hunger and famine,” he said.

Maternal nutrition important

Tedros added that “malnutrition is also generational” as an infant’s nutritional status is closely linked to their mother’s before, during and after pregnancy.

Poor maternal nutrition impairs foetal development, contributing to low birthweight, wasting and poor growth.

Children who survive will suffer from malnutrition and ill health for most of their lives, and be stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty, debt, and ill-health.

Therapeutic food essential

He said severe acute malnutrition can be treated with therapeutic milks, foods and fluid support, according to the needs of the child.

However, although treatment coverage has increased, many children who need it cannot access sufficient care. WHO this year added ready-to-use therapeutic foods to its Essential Medicines List which he hopes will increase their production and availability while also reducing costs.

WHO and other UN agencies have also developed a Global Action Plan on Child Wasting while a new guideline on prevention and management was published on Monday.

Identify at-risk infants

Tedros previewed some of the information in the guidance, which stresses the importance of adequate diet at home, access to quality health services, and early identification of both mothers in need and infants at risk of poor growth and development.

WHO is working with the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and other UN agencies to support governments and health workers to implement the recommendations and adapt them to country needs.

“We are seeing some encouraging signs of progress. Twenty-three countries have now completed country roadmaps to tackle wasting in children,” he reported.

“Now we must support these countries to turn their roadmaps into action and lives saved.”

In concluding, Tedros thanked the UK for convening the Summit and underlined that child deaths from wasting are predictable and preventable.

“WHO looks forward to working with all of you to make food a source of life and hope for all the children of our world,” he said.

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