COVID-19: Wasting in children increased in low, middle income countries due to economic shock

Economic shocks increase risks of inadequate dietary diversity among children

By DTE Staff
Published: Monday 25 April 2022

The prevalence of wasting, moderate to severe, in children under five years in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) increased 14.4-17.8 per cent due to a 10 per cent annual decline in national income, according to a new study. 

Economic shocks can increase risks of inadequate dietary diversity among children, the study in Nature Communications noted. “COVID-19 could put an additional 9.4 million preschoolers at risk of wasting or acute malnutrition,” it added.

Countries had to bring economic activities to a standstill to tackle the COVID-19 health emergency. This led to an increase in extreme poverty and created the worst recession since the Great Depression. 

The study explored the impacts of short-term economic growth shocks on the risks of child wasting. The researchers used 177 demographic and health surveys and collected information on 1.256 million children in 52 low- and middle-income countries from 1990 to 2018.

The retreat of annual economic growth from long-term growth trends increased the risk of child wasting in the next year by a significant margin. 

An increase in child wasting is associated with an increased risk of children having poor dietary diversity and infectious disease symptoms such as diarrhoea and fever, according to the authors. 

When the researchers applied these results to the economic growth estimates for 2020, it was found that COVID-19 could put an extra 9.4 million children in the category of acute malnutrition in 2021. 

Risk in South Asia, Africa

The survey of 1.256 million children (0-59 months of age) spread across 52 LMICs showed large variation in wasting prevalence. Wasting is very common in South Asia, especially India, as well as the Sahel and parts of the Horn of Africa, but “generally much lower in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa despite many African countries having high rates of stunting, a measure of chronic malnutrition,” the study said. 

“Strikingly distinct differences in the progression of wasting between Asian and African children was found,” it added. In South Asia and South-East Asia, peak wasting is highly prevalent at birth (around 27 per cent) and this is consistent with previous evidence on low birth weight and poor maternal weight gain during pregnancy in South Asia (27 per cent). But then declines steadily to level off at around 15 per cent from age 3 onwards. 

In sub-Saharan Africa, wasting progression follows a very different pattern: Children are commonly born wasted, wasting rates are then typically steady for the first few months of life but then rise and peak in the 10-12 months of age (at 11-17 per cent in most sub-regions) before declining thereafter. 

In Sahel, 21 per cent of children are born wasted but by 11 months, wasting prevalence reaches 30 per cent and thereafter declines to 10 per cent by 36 months.

Results point to significantly greater sensitivity of urban children to macroeconomic shocks and also that girls are more sensitive to GDP shocks.

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