Malnutrition: The Hidden Pandemic

July 26, 2021

By Anderson Alleyne, Communications Consultant, Global Health Council

More than 3 million children die each year because of malnutrition, making it the leading cause of death for children under five. Despite decades of progress, there has been a continual increase in global hunger in recent years. Among the factors driving this reversal are climate change, conflict, and economic inequality. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this crisis, placing already vulnerable children at greater risk and blocking the United Nationsgoal of eradicating hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

Given that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted supply chains, increased food prices, and caused many people to lose their sources of income, the ability to access affordable and nutritious food has become a significant challenge for millions worldwide. According to the 2021 edition of “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,” it was projected that between 720 and 811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020. Looking at the middle of the projected range (768 million), approximately 118 million more people were facing hunger in 2020 than in 2019. Without adequate nutrition, children will be prevented from reaching their physical and cognitive potential. Not to mention malnourished individuals are more vulnerable to contracting and dying from infectious diseases. 

Experts have estimated that the pandemic could result in an additional 9.3 million wasted and 2.6 million stunted children along with 168,000 additional child deaths by 2022. Increased funding is necessary to scale up nutrition interventions and reverse this trajectory. Though childhood malnutrition is the underlying cause of 45% of all child deaths, food assistance programs are severely underfunded with less than 1% of U.S. global health funding going to nutrition. It’s estimated that an additional $1.2 billion per year will be needed to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on child undernutrition.

Making nutrition interventions a top development priority is one of the most cost-effective public health approaches, with a $35 return on every $1 invested. Fortunately, this year, there is increased diplomatic momentum to address hunger and malnutrition with the UN Food Systems Summit in September and the Nutrition for Growth Summit in December. Both summits will bring stakeholders together to develop ideas on how to transform the world’s food systems. Furthermore, this provides a historic opportunity to address the major drivers behind the rise in hunger and to establish concrete actions to end malnutrition in all forms.