Research Press Release

Health: COVID-19 pandemic predicted to exacerbate maternal and child undernutrition

Nature Food

July 20, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic will have far-reaching, short and long-term implications for maternal and child undernutrition (insufficient intake of energy and nutrients to meet an individual’s needs to maintain good health) in low- and middle-income countries, suggests a modelling paper published in Nature Food. Under the most pessimistic scenario modelled, three billion people worldwide may be unable to afford a healthy diet due to the pandemic.

Economic, food and health systems have been considerably impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. One alarming consequence of these disruptions is their potential to exacerbate maternal and child undernutrition in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

Saskia Osendarp, Lawrence Haddad, Saskia de Pee, and colleagues used modelling tools to project the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic could have on numerous maternal and child nutrition outcomes in LMICs from 2020 to 2022. These models were applied to optimistic, moderate and pessimistic scenarios to reflect variability between countries concerning economic forecasts and baseline, or pre-COVID-19, intervention levels.

Considering a moderate scenario as an example, by 2022, disruptions caused by the pandemic could account for an additional 9.3 million children (optimistic=6.4 million; pessimistic=13.6 million) who are low weight-for-height and 2.6 million children (optimistic=1.5 million; pessimistic 3.6 million) who are low height-for age. This scenario also predicts 168,000 additional child deaths (optimistic=47,000; pessimistic=283,000), 2.1 million cases of maternal anaemia (optimistic=1 million; pessimistic=4.8 million) and 2.1 million children born to mothers with a low body mass index (optimistic=1.4 million; pessimistic=3 million). Future productivity losses resulting from an increase in stunting, wasting and child mortality could cost US$29.7 billion (pessimistic=US$44.3 billion). In order to mitigate these effects, for example by channelling a greater proportion of budget allocations into nutrition interventions, an extra US$1.2 billion, or US$1.7 billion under a pessimistic scenario, per year will be required.

Given recent developments, including the rapid spread of aggressive new variants of SARS-CoV-2, it is possible that the impacts on nutrition align more closely with the pessimistic scenario, the authors conclude. They argue that nutritional interventions should therefore be prioritised by governments and donors as part of the global COVID-19 response.


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