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Millions of children at risk as Covid-19 impacts nutrition, education and vaccines

Covid-19 has impacted access to vaccines, education, and exacerbated issues around food shortages.

It’s been six months since Covid-19 began upending the lives of billions of people around the world. We know for sure that its impact on children will last long and cut deep.

But now there are fears that Covid-19 is a health crisis that is quickly turning into a child-rights crisis.

Nyajime, 4 - South Sudan - UNI198726
Nyajime, 4 - South Sudan - UNI198726

Nyajime Guet, 4, who is suffering from severe acute malnutrition. © UNICEF/UNI198726/Rich

Millions pushed into food insecurity

Covid-19 will push 265 million people into acute food insecurity by the end of 2020 — that's double last year's numbers.

The virus is exacerbating food shortages, as food imports, transportation and agricultural production have all been hampered by a combination of lockdowns, travel restrictions and physical distancing measures. The pandemic also risks becoming a nutrition crisis, as overburdened healthcare systems, disrupted food systems and income loss prevent children and women from accessing nutritious diets and essential nutrition services, including those for the early detection and treatment of child wasting.

Around the world, 47 million children under 5 years of age suffer from wasting, a condition characterised by low weight for height. In Africa alone, it is estimated that one in five people is undernourished, with wasting occurring in approximately 7.1 per cent of children. Recent estimates of food insecurity have suggested that as many as 73 million people in Africa were acutely food insecure.

Nyajime, 4 - South Sudan - UNI201755
Nyajime, 4 - South Sudan - UNI201755

Nyajime Guet, 4, who is being treated for severe acute malnutrition. © UNICEF/UNI201755/Rich

UNICEF is the largest supplier of therapeutic food around the world, buying an astounding 80 per cent of the world’s emergency supplies. We work with partners to treat millions of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition every year. 

While there has been little research so far into malnutrition in the wake of Covid-19, people with weakened immune systems as a result of undernourishment are at greater risk of a range of serious illnesses and so are likely to be more severely affected by the virus.

Routine vaccines interrupted with potentially 'deadly' consequences

As Covid-19 has spread around the world, vaccination campaigns have also been badly hit. Measles campaigns have been suspended in 27 countries and polio vaccination campaigns have been put on hold in 38 countries.

At least 80 million children under the age of one are at risk because routine immunisations have been substantially disrupted in 68 countries.

The consequences for children could be deadly. Using data from Johns Hopkins University, UNICEF estimates that an additional 6000 children could die every day from preventable causes over the next six months as the pandemic continues to weaken health systems and disrupt routine services.

Protection from vaccine-preventable diseases is a child’s basic right. The global resurgence of measles is putting young children at risk. We cannot afford to lose the decades of health gains that everyone has worked so hard to achieve. COVID-19 is terrible proof that outbreaks can happen in many countries at the same time.

Samoa | ©Unicef/UNI75209
Samoa | ©Unicef/UNI75209

A boy receives a measles vaccination at a temporary clinic in Lalomanu, a village on the eastern coast of Upolu, Samoa.

Now is the time to vigorously monitor the impact on immunisation and plan for services that reach the most vulnerable once restrictions are lifted. This careful planning, coupled with safety measures for healthcare providers, caregivers and children, will help prevent future outbreaks and save lives.

UNICEF is on the ground in 190 countries, immunising millions of children every year. In 2019 UNICEF supplied 2.4 billion doses of vaccines to over 100 countries in support of their national routine immunisation programs and outbreak response. This work continues, even during the pandemic.


Igihozo, 11, listens to a lesson on a radio after his school was closed in Rwanda. UNICEF/UNI319836/Kanobana

More than 1 billion children still out of school

By early June, more than 70 countries had announced plans to reopen schools. Hundreds of millions of students have returned to school in just the last few weeks. Even so, more than 1 billion students around the world are still out of school.

Students around the world have shown just how much they want to keep learning. They have persisted with lessons under difficult circumstances, supported by dedicated teachers and parents.

But many children will need extra support to catch up on their learning when schools reopen. Many schools are making plans for catchup lessons to help bring students back up to speed. This might include starting the year with refresher or remedial courses, after-school programmes or supplemental assignments to be done at home.

Twins Maksim (5) and Jan (5)
Twins Maksim (5) and Jan (5)

Twins Maksim (5) and Jan (5)

Every child has the right to an education – and that doesn't change, even during a global pandemic. During the response to Covid-19, UNICEF has worked with governments and ministries around the world to help them adapt new online learning courses.

Given the volatility of the situation, countries are at different stages regarding how and when they plan to reopen schools. UNICEF believes the best interest of every child, using the best available evidence, should be at the centre of those decisions.

Children can’t wait another six months, your help is needed today. Help us protect children in urgent need right now.