LUKASA - Almost 52,000 children under the age of five in Zambia are at risk of severe wasting – the deadliest form of malnutrition – within the next 12 months if urgent preventive measures are not taken, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has warned.

The assessment comes as Zambia, a landlocked nation in southern Africa, grapples with prolonged drought.

Children in the Western, Southern, Central, and North-Western provinces – four out of ten of Zambia’s regions – are at particularly high risk of becoming malnourished, as many families already face hunger and are unable to provide nutritious food, UNICEF said.

“Children suffering from malnutrition are ten times more likely to die than well-nourished children,” UNICEF Director of Global Communication Naysan Sahba stated.

“If we do not act now, there may be devastating and long-lasting effects on the health, nutrition, and development of Zambia's youngest and most vulnerable population.”

The assessment, commissioned by the National Food and Nutrition Commission and supported by UNICEF, also revealed that pregnant and breastfeeding women are at risk of wasting.

Low breastfeeding rates are also a cause for concern, the agency said, highlighting that rates of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life – which helps protect babies from sickness – “are worryingly low across” many provinces, especially in the urban parts of the capital Lusaka.

The UN agency called for immediate action to ensure food distribution and cash assistance for mothers and children, expand healthcare access, and improve health and sanitation services.

“We must urgently expand access to nutritious and diverse food, health services, and water, hygiene and sanitation services in order to avert a looming crisis,” Mr. Sahba said.