BAGHDAD / GENEVA, 11 March 2003 - With the threat of war looming over Iraq, UNICEF is providing special therapeutic food for over 400,000 malnourished children across the country in an urgent effort to bolster their chances of survival in the event of a conflict.
Working closely with the Ministry of Health, UNICEF has trucked more than 1,000 metric tonnes of high-protein biscuits into Iraq in recent days. The biscuits, which the government is now delivering to health centres across the country, are part of an ongoing UNICEF campaign to reach Iraqi children with life-protecting nutrients and vaccines ahead of a possible conflict.
"We are still hoping for a peaceful resolution to this crisis," said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. "But it's a fact that the children of Iraq are extremely vulnerable. Their health, their nutrition, their access to safe water - all of which are weak already - will be further jeopardized in a war. By acting to reach them now, we hope to save lives in the weeks and months ahead."
UNICEF has also delivered 155 metric tonnes of therapeutic milk to feed children suffering from severe malnutrition - a major cause underlying death among children under five. A total of 10,000 severely malnourished children will benefit immediately from the therapeutic milk, which is now arriving in each of the 63 nutrition rehabilitation centres run by the Iraq Ministry of Health.
The UNICEF deliveries constitute the first shipments of high protein biscuits and therapeutic milk into the country in two years. The supplies are sufficient to last for a month. UNICEF has also shipped nutritional supplies to its warehouses in the countries surrounding Iraq to enable a rapid response should a surge in malnutrition occur.
Iraq has one of the highest rates of under-five mortality in the world, with more than one in eight children dying before they reach their fifth birthday. Although it has improved in recent years, malnutrition also remains high, affecting one in four Iraqi children under the age of five - almost 1 million youngsters in total.
Half of Iraq's 24.5 million people are children.
Lessons of 1991
UNICEF noted that child malnutrition in Iraq rose dramatically following the 1991 Gulf War, partly due to the destruction of infrastructure, partly due to poor use of available resources, and partly because of international sanctions, which have drastically reduced most families' purchasing power and thus their protein consumption (a lack of meat in the diet). This explains why 60 per cent of Iraqi women suffer from iron deficiency, which in turn contributes to children being underweight at birth.
"Today, almost a quarter of Iraqi children are born underweight, and a similar number under age five are malnourished," said Carel De Rooy, the UNICEF Representative in Iraq. "That's serious enough. But war adds displacement, interruption of food and water supplies, and outbreaks of disease. Combined, these events would strike a heavy blow to a population of children who are already struggling to survive," he said.
Since 1991 UNICEF has supported the Ministry of Health to establish nutrition rehabilitation centres in children's hospitals. The agency provides training, specialised nutrition supplies, and materials. The effort was expanded with the development of 2,800 Community Child Care Units that screen children for malnutrition to catch signs early and speed children into special care. Primarily based in schools, the units have reached some 70 per cent of children under five.
UNICEF said that malnourished children do not typically perish from hunger. "In this situation, when children are weak, diarrhoea caused by bad water will kill," warned de Rooy. "Tens of thousands of children are extremely vulnerable to any further deterioration in their health and nutrition status," he said.
"Simply put, war hurts children the most," Bellamy said. "Children are the most vulnerable, physically and emotionally. Whatever else we feel about war, we have to recognize this fact. It's just as true in this region as it is in Afghanistan, Sudan, Colombia, and dozens of other countries in conflict. The real issue is what we do to protect children in times of war."
High Protein Biscuits contain protein, calories and micronutrients and have proved to be highly effective in saving lives in emergencies around the world. They require no water or preparation, and thus can be transported easily and consumed safely in any setting. The biscuits have previously been used successfully in Iraq.
Therapeutic Milk is used for the treatment and rehabilitation of severely malnourished children, who also frequently suffer from associated conditions such as chronic diarrhoea - usually the result of unclean water.
UNICEF has provided support to Iraqi children since 1953. It opened a permanent operation in Baghdad in 1983 and has been present ever since. UNICEF works to ensure that Iraqi children are immunized, well-nourished, and have access to safe water and decent sanitation, as well as education.
In addition to its efforts to bolster children's health and nutrition ahead of a possible conflict, UNICEF has shipped thousands of tonnes of relief supplies to the region and is preparing itself to mount a rapid emergency response should that be needed.
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