By Madeleine Logan
Conditions in Bangui’s camps for the displaced highlight the increased risk of malnutrition and disease for those who have come in search of safety.
BANGUI, Central African Republic, 28 April 2014 – Inside the temporary shelters at the Eglise des Frères Castor displacement camp in the capital of the Central African Republic, the air is hot and static. Extended families are sprawled under white tarpaulin tents, sitting on woven mats that cover the dirt floors.
There is shelter here, but no privacy. And despite the availability of food throughout the camp, many people complain of hunger.
A small baby nestles in a bundle of blankets, resting quietly beside her mother. The camp may provide them refuge from the violence that has plagued the country for the past year, but the rising price of food and cramped conditions put the small child at serious risk for malnutrition.
For the more than 644,000 displaced people in CAR, things are likely to get even worse.
One meal a day
Upwards of 30,000 people live in the camp at Frères Castor. The things they could carry lie all around them: mattresses, cooking stoves, radios, toys, and pieces of furniture.
While a child braids her mother's hair, a neighbour, Jacob, eats his only meal of the day while gathered with his friends around a plate of rice and tomato paste.
The price of food has risen sharply since the start of the crisis – rice by nearly 25 per cent, and cassava by 13 per cent, according to a market survey by NGO Action Against Hunger. From January to March this year, 680 children aged 6 months to 5 years were treated for severe malnutrition at Bangui Pediatric Hospital – three times greater than in the same period last year, when about 214 children were treated.
Malnutrition puts children at serious risk of developmental problems and even death. Malnourished children living in densely populated displacement sites are also at greater risk for diseases like malaria and diarrhoea, which can be particularly deadly for severely underweight children.
Children who experience malnutrition in the first 1,000 days of their lives – from the mother’s pregnancy to the child’s second birthday – are more likely to have developmental problems later in life.
UNICEF and its partners are working in major displacement camps to evaluate and treat children who are at risk of malnutrition. Together with local communities, they aim to identify families most at risk and treat more than 16,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Most will be treated at weekly outpatient clinics in camps or health facilities, where children are monitored and given a one-week supply of therapeutic food.
Children with medical complications are taken to Bangui Pediatric Hospital, supported by UNICEF. Comforted by their mothers, scarred by the opportunistic infections and disease that malnutrition brings, these children are diagnosed and treated with therapeutic feeding, supplemental nutrition and basic health care.
Inside the Stage 3 area of the malnutrition ward, the mothers who have accompanied their children are frustrated. They can see that their children have made progress, but they know that finding affordable food outside the hospital is difficult. It keeps getting more expensive.
Surrounded by her sister and many mothers just like her, Emery Sunet says, “The children get treatment and return home, but the problem of malnutrition remains. If the children only eat cassava for one or two weeks, they'll be malnourished. That's why we are here, none of us have money to fix this problem.”