Undernutrition is a medical condition that affects mostly young children and women. It can be found in chronic and acute forms, or both forms combined in the same individuals. Undernutrition can be caused by a variety of factors (i.e. poor access to nutritious food and water or sanitation facilities, illness, lack of adequate care practices, insufficient health services). These factors are often structural and linked to high poverty levels, which are exacerbated when a crisis (natural or man-made) hits.
Under-nutrition has devastating consequences on the survival and development of children. Every year, nearly half of all deaths in children under five are due to under-nutrition. Health problems, such as diarrhoea or respiratory disease, can be a major cause of malnutrition and malnutrition increases the risk of illness. Malnourished children are more likely to fall ill because their immune systems do not develop properly and therefore cannot defend against illnesses and infectious diseases. Failure to treat under-nutrition undermines the effectiveness of efforts to tackle other diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea, and pneumonia. It also causes irreversible impairment of growth and cognitive development for hundreds of millions more children, and to the future of the upcoming societies.
Globally, some 51 million children under the age of five suffer from acute under-nutrition also known as wasting, 19 million of these suffer from the most serious type – severe acute under-nutrition. Wasting refers to a child who has a weight deficiency resulting from recent rapid weight loss or the failure to gain weight. A child who is moderately or severely wasted has an increased risk of death, but treatment is possible. Stunting refers to a child who has a height deficiency. Stunting is the impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition, repeated infection, and inadequate psychosocial stimulation.
Malnutrition remains common in humanitarian emergencies. In many countries the prevalence of wasting escalates dramatically when people face food shortages, disease outbreaks, displacement and a breakdown of essential services. Children affected by wasting are 9 times more likely to die prematurely than those who are not.
The European Union tackles and finds solutions to acute malnutrition through an integrated multi-sectoral nutrition strategy which combines the assessment of nutritional status of children, treatment of acute malnutrition, and prevention of all forms of malnutrition.
Severe acute under-nutrition is deadly but curable. Since the adoption of the community-based management of malnutrition (CMAM) by UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) in 2007, national protocols have been adopted in many developing countries. However, their implementation remains inconsistent due to limited resources.
When a crisis hits and when the prevalence of acute under-nutrition is above emergency threshold, the European Union and its humanitarian partners intervene and support the implementation of nutrition programmes, either through direct implementation in complex emergencies, or through reinforcing existing systems. Treatment of acute malnutrition is increasingly being delivered as part of a package of integrated health and nutrition services. In high risk areas, the European Union also supports a disaster preparedness approach in strengthening response capacities and shock responsivity of existing community and health systems.
Funding from the EU allocated to nutrition programming has increased significantly in the past decade, reaching nearly €130 million in 2018. This money provides specialised food products used for the treatment of severe acute malnutrition. In-house nutrition experts in regional support offices support partners in the field to ensure the relevance and quality of the nutrition programming supported by the European Union.
Through its resilience approach, the European Union also aims to apply a nutrition angle to its programming in order to maximise the nutrition impact of humanitarian interventions, and to reinforce the link between humanitarian and development programming.
Collaboration and exchange of expertise ensures the treatment is available beyond humanitarian crisis to sustainably address the underlying causes of under-nutrition. Examples of prevention strategies include the provision of access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities for affected communities; free access to health care for children and pregnant and lactating mothers; and support to households in restoring their livelihoods after a disaster.
The humanitarian and development aid services of the European Union work closely together to ensure coherence and complementarity in the field of nutrition.
In 2018, only 25% of the children affected by severe acute malnutrition received adequate care. Alongside advocacy efforts toward more resources and for an increased awareness of the scope and consequences of under-nutrition, a technical agenda has been developed and undertaken by the European Commission and it partners.
Innovative approaches and operational research are looking at how to optimise performance, coverage, and the cost efficiency of treatment protocols, and how to identify strategies that demonstrate significant impact on prevention.