UN warns surge of preventable child deaths in Gaza as malnutrition levels spike

1 in 6 children under the age of 2 is acutely malnourished

By DTE Staff
Published: Tuesday 20 February 2024
The conflict in Gaza Strip has enetered its 20th week. Photo: @UNRWA / X (formerly Twitter)

As the conflict in Gaza Strip enters its 20th week, malnutrition among children and pregnant and breastfeeding women poses severe risk to their health, United Nations warned on February 19, 2024. 

Food and safe water have become extremely scarce and diseases are rampant, jeopardising women’s and children’s nutrition and immunity, resulting in a surge in acute malnutrition, humanitarian coordination mechanism Global Nutrition Cluster found in a comprehensive new analysis.

The analysis also found alarming statistics: One in six children under two years’ age in Northern Gaza are acutely malnourished, a staggering 15.6 per cent increase from just months ago. Nearly 3 per cent of these suffer from severe wasting — the most life-threatening form of malnutrition — putting young children at the highest risk of medical complications and death unless they receive immediate treatment

Read more: Unprecedented 93% of population in Gaza facing crisis levels of hunger, warns WHO

Since the data was collected in January, the situation is likely to be even worse today, World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF warned in a statement. About 90 per cent of children under five years and 95 per cent of pregnant and breastfeeding women are facing severe food poverty, consuming less than two food groups daily. The food they do have access to has the lowest nutritional value.

Further, most households are restricting their meals and portion sizes (95 per cent) and almost two-thirds of the households (64 per cent) are eating just one meal every day. More than 95 per cent of households limited the amount of food adults received in order to ensure that small children had enough to eat. 

“The steep rise in malnutrition that we are seeing in Gaza is dangerous and entirely preventable,” said World Food Programme Assistant Executive Director for Programme Operations, Valerie Guarnieri, in the press statement. “Children and women, in particular, need continuous access to healthy foods, clean water and health and nutrition services. For that to happen, we need decisive improvements on security and humanitarian access, and additional entry points for aid to enter Gaza.”

Read more: Decades of underfunding, blockade have weakened Gaza’s health system — the siege has pushed it into abject crisis

Inadequate safe drinking water, as well as insufficient water for cooking and hygiene, are exacerbating poor nutrition. Hungry, thirsty and weak, more Gazans are falling sick, the statement said. 

According to the report, at least 90 per cent of children under the age of five are suffering from one or more infectious diseases. Seventy per cent reported diarrhoea in the previous two weeks, a 23-fold increase from the 2022 baseline. 

“Hunger and disease are a deadly combination,” said Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme. ”Hungry, weakened and deeply traumatised children are more likely to get sick, and children who are sick, especially with diarrhoea, cannot absorb nutrients well. It’s dangerous and tragic and happening before our eyes.”

Without more humanitarian assistance, the nutritional situation is likely to continue to deteriorate rapidly and at scale across the Gaza Strip, the UN agencies further warned. 

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