UNICEF says at least 16 million children are malnourished in the Middle East and North Africa

Raphaella Stavrinou - Journalist, New Europe

More than 16 million children under five years of age suffer from acute malnutrition in the Middle East and North Africa, a trend that has stagnated or worsened since 2000, a new report by UNICEF revealed.

Despite the improvements to address under-nutrition, the Middle East and North Africa came in second globally in child obesity, with 5.4 million children being overweight – up from 3.4 million in 2000, according to the State of the World’s Children report.

Moreover, nearly 11 million children suffer from chronic or acute malnutrition, a number that includes over 7 million children with growth defects as well as 3.7 million acutely malnourished children. The report highlights that children that are poorly nourished are 11 times more likely to die without treatment, in comparison to those children who have access to proper food and vitamins.

The impact of the region’s various conflicts has deeply affected children’s nutrition in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Sudan. Since hostilities broke out in each nation, nearly one-third of all pregnant and nursing mothers in northwest Syria are anaemic, while the widespread deprivations caused by years of war have had a severe impact on the physical and mental development of children in all four countries.

Around 2.3 million children in Sudan now suffer from malnutrition, while half of all deaths of children under five years old are directly related to. This is mainly due to rising food prices. An estimated 2 million children in Yemen are currently suffering from acute malnutrition, including 360,000 children under five-years-old that are fighting to survive.

Ted Chaiban, UNICEF’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, highlighted the report’s findings, saying, “Children from the poorest and most marginalised communities account for the largest share of all children suffering from malnutrition. This perpetuates poverty across multiple generations. Children who are hungry are unable to concentrate in school or learn. Those who are stunted in their growth have lower earning potential as adults as a result of developmental deficiencies.”

“Hidden hunger”, which occurs when the quality of food that people eat does not meet their nutritional requirements, as well as micronutrient deficiencies from poor diets, are also factors that threaten children’s survival along with physical growth and brain development and as overweight.

“Staple foods with low nutritious value, highly processed “junk” foods, sugary drinks, food fortification policies, labelling, and marketing practices – are all failing to provide healthy diets for children in poor and wealthy countries alike. As a result, more children are not eating healthy and are either undernourished or overweight in a number of countries in the region” added Chaiban.

Improving the nutrition situation in the Middle East and North Africa requires the concerted efforts of governments, the private sector, donors, parents, and those in the health, education, water, sanitation, hygiene and social protection services.

As the world marks the 30th anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which secures a child’s right to nutritious food, UNICEF has issued a call for all governments to place child nutrition at their heart of state-supported humanitarian aid campaigns and demanded that the private sector partner with food suppliers to produce and distribute nutritious foods to at-risk children.

The report also stresses that it is important to enforce strict minimum food quality standards and improve labelling, while also saying that restrictions need to be put in place to limit the marketing of food that has little to no nutritional value.

A further important recommendation in the report encourages the provision of paid parental leave and dedicated time and facilities for women to breastfeed in the workplace and the supply of school canteens with healthy foods in addition to safe access to water and hygienic facilities for food preparation for students, teachers, and families. This would also include preventive and treatment services for nutrition in health care systems around the region.

UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children Report is released annually and covers key issues that affect children. This year’s finding is the first to examine the major challenges that children face in regards to food and nutrition issues.

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