UNICEF urges vigilance as malnutrition increases in Sendong-hit areas

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Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines, 1 February 2012 – Over a month since Tropical Storm Sendong (international name Washi) devastated communities across northern Mindanao, many children are still suffering. According to the latest figures by nutrition experts, the acute malnutrition rate in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan Cities has increased significantly and raises concerns.

Acute malnutrition is displayed by several indicators including being underweight for height. It is commonly called “wasting,” and is a condition in which muscles and fat tissue “waste” away. A child has a 30% chance of dying if it is left untreated. Episodes of wasting have a short duration in contrast to “stunting,” most commonly displayed as low height for age, which happens over a period of time.

During emergencies such as floods, families who have lost loved ones and homes also lose their ability to get adequate nutritious food and also the means to prepare healthy meals. The increase in malnutrition rates may be attributed to this compromised food supply and the food quality of families who are now displaced. For infants, an exacerbating factor is the widespread donations of powdered milk, which undermines breastfeeding, leading to a loss of the protective nutrients found in breast milk. Lack of exclusive breastfeeding puts babies’ health in jeopardy, because of the increased risk of diarrhea and other infections. Globally, an infant not breastfed is six times more likely to die.

The nutritional status of children in Mindanao has also been an issue of serious concern for many years. The multiple and recurring emergencies both from situations of armed conflict and natural disasters, combined with inadequate infant and young child feeding practices and high incidence of diseases, has undermined the nutritional well-being of young children in parts of Mindanao. If malnutrition is not addressed, their development and learning will be poor, and their income-earning potential as adults will be reduced. “Malnutrition is an especially serious concern for Mindanao, where a significant number of children are already undernourished. Sendong dealt an additional blow to these children’s health. That is why we need to keep a close eye on the situation of these vulnerable young children,” Dr. Abdul Alim, UNICEF Philippines’ Representative a.i. says.

During the latest screening supported by UNICEF, 207 children were found to be acutely malnourished. This is a 50% increase compared to the initial screening carried out at the beginning of the emergency, although it should be noted that the sample size is small.

To respond to the situation, UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, along with partners continues to monitor the situation of children, provides assistance to the Department of Health (DoH), and checks milk code violations. The government has taken positive action by issuing a Cease and Desist Order requesting companies to halt powdered milk distribution in evacuation centers.

UNICEF is also providing ready-to-use therapeutic food for the treatment of wasting and micronutrient powders to increase the nutritional value of foods consumed by children. To educate families on how best to prevent malnutrition and to help protect life-saving breastfeeding practices, UNICEF is also supporting Infant and Young Child Feeding education sessions in evacuation centres and affected communities. Mothers who are breastfeeding are given support and advice in “baby friendly” tents where they can also share experiences with other breastfeeding mothers. Children found to be moderately or severely malnourished are referred for treatment and monitored until they return to their target weight.

UNICEF has been able to reach around 4,500 children under five years old, and around 2,000 pregnant and lactating women. It has spent around US$400,000 on nutrition supplies and services, which include breastfeeding counselling and nutrition screening. Still, the needs are great. UNICEF still needs further funds to respond to all the nutritional needs of flood affected children and the agency is appealing for additional funds for the overall Sendong response, which covers health and nutrition, water and sanitation, education and child protection.

“The process of recovery and rehabilitation for the hundreds of thousands of children and families affected by Sendong will take many months. UNICEF will continue to work closely with the Government, UN agencies and civil society partners to provide support and services that address the current needs as well as identifying and implementing longer-term solutions including disaster risk reduction,” Alim adds.