Generation Nutrition - what is acute malnutrition?

12 facts you might not know about acute malnutrition

Learn 12 facts about acute malnutrition that you might not know and find out how you can use your voice for change.

By Action Against Hunger

Jan 1 2017

1. Hunger and malnutrition are NOT the same

Hunger – a feeling of discomfort, weakness or pain - is the body’s response to a lack of food. The feeling of hunger can be sated if a child has access to adequate quantities of food. But tackling malnutrition requires a more comprehensive response. It means making sure that children have access to food that is good in both quality and quantity, and a balanced diet - rich in essential vitamins and minerals. It also means protecting children from illnesses, such as diarrhoea, which can stop their body from absorbing vital nutrients.

While the world has been tackling hunger for a number of years, the fight against acute malnutrition, is relatively new.


2. Good nutrition could save 52 million children from life-threatening malnutrition

Good nutrition can prevent acute malnutrition, or wasting, which occurs when a child’s weight drops to a dangerously low level putting them at a real risk of dying. Sadly, acute malnutrition is a reality for 52 million children under five - that’s 1 in 12 children - so addressing this issue must be a priority.


3. Every 30 seconds, somewhere in the world, a child dies of acute malnutrition

We have made huge progress in reducing preventable child deaths - 17,000 fewer children die each day than in 1990. But this progress is threatened by the persistently high rates of acute malnutrition. Every 30 seconds, somewhere in the world, a child dies of acute malnutrition. 


4. Progress in tackling acute malnutrition has been dangerously slow

In the last 20 years the global burden of acute malnutrition or wasting, fell by only 11%, roughly six million, compared to chronic malnutrition or stunting which fell by 36% in the same period. In fact, in some regions, like sub-Saharan Africa, the number of acutely malnourished children grew during this period, from 10 million to 13 million.

This should not happen. We know how to prevent and treat dangerously malnourished children. What is lacking is the political will!


5. We know how to stop millions of children from becoming malnourished in the first place

Unhindered access to nutritious food, clean water, sanitation and healthcare, as well as good care practices for babies and small children, all help to prevent malnutrition. Scaling up and accelerating these interventions will prevent the risk of long-term health implications.


6. It’s possible to identify and diagnose malnourished children with a tape that costs 6p!

Diagnosing dangerously malnourished children and identifying those in need of immediate life-saving treatment is now even easier. An inexpensive, colour coded measuring tape that measures the changes in muscle and fat mass in a child’s arm, provides an accurate and sensitive indicator of acute malnutrition and risk of death. These measuring bands are simple and accurate enough to be used by non-medical professionals, such as mothers, and cost as little as 6p each!


7. Parents can safely treat their children at home

Before, when the only way to treat dangerously malnourished children was through special milk, children could only be safely treated by doctors and nurses in hospitals which were often hard to reach and too busy to treat everyone.

Now, mothers and fathers of acutely malnourished children can pick up special nutrient rich peanut pastes, which require no refrigeration, cooking or added water, from their local health centres and treat their children instantly at home.

This has revolutionised the way we treat dangerously malnourished children.


8. The treatment for severe acute malnutrition gets more effective every year

Treating malnourished children in the community is very effective. Cure rates for the community-based treatment of dangerously malnourished children have increased from 80% in 2006 to 84% in 2013. What’s more, now this amazing therapeutic food can restore even the most malnourished children to relative health in just a matter of weeks.

Baby Prahlad, pictured above, was severely malnourished. He no longer played and lost his strength. He could not even smile. He was immediately put on life-saving treatment. Less than a month after being diagnosed and put on an intense course of treatment Prahlad’s weight increased from 4.4kg to 5.4kg and he was laughing again.


9. Since 2009 the number of children receiving treatment has tripled!

In 2009, around 1 million children were admitted into treatment programmes for severe malnutrition worldwide. In 2013, 3.2 million children were given life-saving treatment for malnutrition. However, despite this clear progress, only 20% of children with the most life-threatening form of acute malnutrition are currently being treated.


10. The treatment of acute malnutrition is the most cost-effective nutrition intervention

Economic experts have rated investments in nutrition the number one development intervention in terms of cost-effectiveness and impact. And at $125 per life-year saved, the treatment of acute malnutrition is the most cost-effective nutrition intervention. What's more, every $1 invested in nutrition, including the treatment of severe acute malnutrition, generates as much as $138 in better health and increased productivity.


11. Nutrition is critical to achieving sustained economic growth

Nutrition is critical to achieving sustained economic growth. Nutrition is critical for cognitive development and learning. Well-nourished children go on to earn 20% more as adults. On the flip-side, malnourished children are 19% less likely to read and the negative implications of malnutrition can cost countries up to 3% of the potential Gross Domestic Product (GPD) – which translates into millions or even billions in lost income.



The No Wasted Lives Coalition is helping to accelerate a child survival revolution by building knowledge about prevention and treatment of acute malnutrition, catalysing investment, and doubling the proportion of children annually receiving treatment for severe acute malnutrition by 2020.

By investing more resources and working better together we can save millions of lives, and build a brighter, more productive future for all. Join the growing movement on Twitter and sign up to the newsletter for all the latest on how you can get involved.

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