06 Sep 17 06 Sep 17


Nine children die every minute because their diet lacks essential nutrients. They will continue to do so unless food aid changes.

MSF admitted 347,800 malnourished patients to nutrition programs in 2012.

When children suffer from acute malnutrition, their immune systems are so impaired that the risk of death is greatly increased. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malnutrition is the single greatest threat to the world’s public health. WHO estimates that 178 million children under five are malnourished.

The critical age for malnutrition is from six months — when mothers generally start supplementing breast milk with other foods — to 24 months. However, children under five, adolescents, pregnant or breastfeeding women, the elderly and the chronically ill are also vulnerable.

People become malnourished if they are unable to take in enough food. They may also become malnourished if they are unable to fully utilize the food they eat, perhaps due to illnesses such as diarrhea, measles, HIV and tuberculosis.

We estimate that only three per cent of the 20 million children suffering from severe acute malnutrition receive the lifesaving treatment they need.

What causes malnutrition?

In the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and parts of South Asia, people are often unable to access highly nutritious foods such as milk, meats and fish. The diets of children under the age of two have a profound impact on their physical and mental development. Malnourished children under the age of five have severely weakened immune systems and are less resistant to common childhood diseases.

This is why a common cold or a bout of diarrhea can kill a malnourished child. Of the eight million deaths of children under five each year, malnutrition contributes to at least one third.

Symptoms of malnutrition

The most common sign of malnutrition is weight loss. Loss of weight may also be accompanied by a lack of strength and energy and the inability to undertake routine tasks. Those who are malnourished often develop anemia and therefore a lack of energy and breathlessness.

In children, signs of malnutrition may include an inability to concentrate or increased irritability and stunted growth. In cases of severe acute malnutrition, swelling of the stomach, face and legs and changes in skin pigmentation may also occur.

Diagnosing malnutrition

Malnutrition is diagnosed by comparing standard weights and heights within a given population, or by the measurement of a child’s mid-upper arm circumference.

If dietary deficiencies persist, children will stop growing and become stunted — meaning they have a low height for their age. This is diagnosed as chronic malnutrition.

If they experience weight loss or wasting — low weight relative to their height — they are diagnosed with acute malnutrition. This weight loss occurs when a malnourished person begins to consume his or her own body tissues to obtain needed nutrients.

Treating malnutrition

We believe that ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) is the most effective way to treat malnutrition. RUTFs include all the nutrients a child needs during its development and helps to reverse deficiencies and add weight. RUTFs don’t require water for preparation, which eliminates the risk of contamination with water-borne diseases.

Because of its packaging, RUTFs can be used in all kinds of settings and can be stored for long periods of time. Unless the patient suffers from severe complications, RUTFs also allow patients to be treated at home.

Where malnutrition is likely to become severe, we take a preventative approach by distributing supplementary RUTFs to at-risk children.

In 2012, MSF admitted 276,300 malnourished children into therapeutic feeding programs.

Check out the interactive guide to malnutrition: