With malnutrition and vulnerability on the rise in Central African Republic, agencies respond
By Colette Boughton and Dede Nambeanre
In the wake of a coup, food insecurity has risen in the Central African Republic – and with it the risk of malnutrition.
BANGUI, Central African Republic, 10 July 2013 – Normal family life came to an abrupt halt when the armed coalition Seleka took control of Bangui and seized power in March this year.
Solange Degbondemo and her 1-year-old daughter, Providence, live in one of the many areas of the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR) where fighting and pillaging by armed groups were a daily occurrence.
“Some families in the neighbourhood escaped across the river to the [Democratic Republic of] Congo,” she says, describing the first weeks after the coup. “We decided to stay at home until it was safe to go out. We did not have much food at home, and in the markets there was little food. Providence started to get sick.”
Ms. Degbondemo decided to get help. “Some other mothers advised me to take her to the St. Joseph Health Centre. The staff there discovered that Providence was suffering from malnutrition,” she says. “We have been coming here for a month and a half now; she takes Plumpy’Nut [therapeutic food] and is gaining weight.”
Treating malnutrition in a complex emergency
Providence’s malnutrition also left her vulnerable to other health problems, so she was given vitamin A supplements, deworming treatment and medicine for a cough and malaria.
As the rebels took control of other towns across the country, many Central African families fled their homes.
“There was panic and we fled into the bush. I got separated from my husband,” says Brigitte Ngoudjemake of Kago Bandoro, in the centre of the country. “For two weeks we had no food or drinking water. As I arrived in Bangui, by chance I met someone from my village who saw that we were sick and had no money and no family. He gave us a place to stay.”
Marie-Claire, Ms. Ngoudjemake’s 1-year-old daughter, was severely malnourished, had no appetite and weighed just over four kilograms. Her case was so severe that nutritionists from UNICEF partner Action Against Hunger referred her for inpatient treatment with medicine, oral solutions and therapeutic feeding.
“Now she eats Plumpy’Nut and is getting better,” her mother says. “She weighs five and a half kilos now. If we had stayed at home, I would have lost her.”
Brigitte and her daughter are one of many families displaced since conflict broke out, some of them living in precarious conditions while hiding in the bush. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 206,000 Central Africans have been displaced within the country, while the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports nearly 55,000 have fled to Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan.
In a landlocked country like the Central African Republic, it can take several months for supplies to arrive. To help ensure timely emergency response, a Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) was set up.
Robert McCarthy, UNICEF CAR’s Emergency Coordinator, explains that the RRM required extensive planning and preparation.
“In the first phase, UNICEF led field assessments which revealed that people’s food sources had changed due to the conflict, with lower food stocks, less food and higher prices in markets, as well as crop and livestock losses,” he says.
“In 2012, UNICEF pre-positioned emergency relief supplies in the capital. When the conflict escalated in December 2012, UNICEF was in a strong position to distribute emergency supplies to nutrition partners to help severe acutely malnourished children.”
Mr. McCarthy says that UNICEF and Action Against Hunger have returned 25 therapeutic feeding units to operation in and around Bangui and in Kemo and Bossangoa prefectures, providing care for about 6,000 malnourished children.
Pascal Mounier, CAR Representative of the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), says “ECHO’s partnership with UNICEF, with €1.8 million of ECHO funding, is already yielding results, and the RRM is enabling a better prepared, more informed and coordinated humanitarian response for the growing number of people affected by conflict in the Central African Republic.”
Lean times ahead
As the region approaches the ‘lean season’ when food supply runs low, from mid-May until the harvest in September, the World Food Programme (WFP) fears that food insecurity could reach crisis levels: 80,500 people faced food insecurity after the start of the crisis, in December 2012, and an additional 62,000 are in a situation of severe food insecurity since March.
UNICEF CAR Representative Souleymane Diabate is concerned about the enormous risk of malnutrtion.
“Close to 13,500 children under 5 could suffer from severe acute malnutrition, and another 44,000 children under 5 will suffer from moderate acute malnutrition in 2013,” he says. “The scale of the humanitarian crisis is such that additional and immediate funding of $23 million is needed to help UNICEF save the lives of these children over the coming months.”