Around the world, in places like Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and even across the Asia Pacific region, children are in the grip of a malnutrition crisis.

Families are doing all they can to ensure their children are healthy, but the challenges of conflict and extreme weather conditions are proving too much to bear. The war in Ukraine is causing food prices to soar, while worldwide devastating floods and persistent droughts continue to drive up children’s food and nutrition insecurity. This is culminating into catastrophic levels of severe malnutrition in children under five.  

Across the globe right now, almost 8 million children are at risk of dying from severe malnutrition without immediate treatment. That's one child every 60 seconds in 15 crisis-hit countries. Closer to home in Asia Pacific, many families don’t have equal access to nutritious, safe and affordable food or safe and clean water. UNICEF is doing all it can to provide essential therapeutic food, safe water and nutrition support to families and health centres in the remote corners of the world to save children suffering from deadly malnutrition.

1 in 3

Children under five worldwide are affected by some form of malnutrition.

74.8 m

children across Asia Pacific are affected with stunting, nearly half of the world’s total.

A little Afghanistan boy resting on his mother's lap and looking at the camera.
At only eight months old, baby Danyal received life-saving treatment for severe acute malnutrition at a UNICEF-supported children’s ward in Afghanistan.
© UNICEF/UN0579299/Qayoumi

What is malnutrition?

Malnutrition is not only about lack of food, it’s a combination of other causes, such as diet at home, illnesses like malaria and water-borne diseases, limited access to clean water and sanitation, lack of access to health services, and inadequate child feeding practices.

Timely treatment of children with severe acute malnutrition can save lives, however, those who remain untreated are sadly at risk of dying. Even those with less severe forms of malnutrition experience delayed growth or impaired brain development – which impacts learning capacity and school performance. Malnourished children also become more vulnerable to childhood diseases such as diarrhea and acute respiratory infections and may grow dependent on a lifetime of health care.

Understanding malnutrition on three levels

Many families simply cannot access or afford a healthy diet leading to micronutrient deficiencies and devastating consequences for children’s survival, growth, and development.

Stunting occurs in children due to chronic undernutrition. Children affected by stunting are short for their age, and their brains may never develop to their full potential, which impacts the child’s ability to learn across their lifetime.

Also known as wasting, this is when a child experiences dangerous and rapid weight loss because of sudden lack of food, often accompanied by other health complications. The child becomes desperately thin, has a weakened immune system, requiring urgent treatment and care. If they survive, they are more susceptible to stunted growth and long-term developmental delays.

In Cambodia, a mother holds her daughter who has been diagnosed with malnutrition.© UNICEF/UN0403548/Raab

Malnutrition is happening in our own backyard

Malnutrition is not just a crisis that’s unfolding across the Horn of Africa or in places like Pakistan and Yemen, malnutrition is also prevalent in Asia Pacific. In fact, Timor-Leste has one of the world’s highest rates of stunting with one in every two children under five being stunted. While in Papua New Guinea, 48 per cent of children are stunted or chronically malnourished.

In Cambodia, 32 per cent of children under five are malnourished, like two-year-old Solina here, who during a routine screening was diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition (SAM). Shocked to learn this, Solina’s mother worked with local health care workers to ensure Solina received the treatment she needed to not only survive but thrive at home with her family.

How is UNICEF making a difference?

UNICEF is working around the clock providing immediate care in emergency settings in places like Somalia, Afghanistan and Yemen as well as through our long-term development programs in countries like Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste. Alongside our partners, we provide nutrition support and life-saving therapeutic food to mums and their little ones. We are changing whole communities by educating parents on nutrition practices. And we support health workers to screen children to identify malnutrition early and provide critical treatment to help them recover. 

80%

UNICEF procures and distributes an estimated 75-80 per cent of the world’s Ready-to-use Therapeutic Food (RUTF).

26,272

children in Timor-Leste received nutrition screening and treatment services during 2021 and 2022.

What is Ready-to-use Therapeutic Food (RUTF)?

A true lifesaver for children suffering from severe acute malnutrition is Ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) such as Plumpy'Nut. Many call it a magical product. It's a high-energy peanut paste containing sugar, vegetable oil and skimmed milk powder, enriched with vitamins and minerals. Only three sachets a day for six to eight weeks can be all it takes to save a child's life from severe acute malnutrition (SAM).

Recovering from malnutrition in Kenya

Fearlessly deliver life-saving supplies

The escalating global food crisis is forcing one additional child to suffer from malnutrition every minute. Please help us deliver life-saving supplies such as therapeutic milk and food to children in need.

A Sudanese mother feeding her child therapeutic milk to treat malnutrition.
© UNICEF/UN0686577/Abdalrasol