By Shushan Mebrahtu
The nearly five-year conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic has led to a dramatic increase in malnutrition among children. UNICEF is supporting the effort across the country to reach them with treatment and to prevent further deteriorating of the nutrition situation, but greater resources are badly needed.
DAMASCUS, Syrian Arab Republic, 8 September 2015 – At 6 months old, Youssef, suffering from severe acute malnutrition, weighed just 3.2 kg (7 lb). His mother was extremely worried. The little boy had also been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that mostly affects the lungs, and his body was so frail, he struggled to breathe. His life was in danger.
Youssef’s family lives in the Syrian Arab Republic in an area of Aleppo just steps from the front line of conflict. Thanks to one of the UNICEF-supported nutrition outreach teams, Youssef was immediately admitted for intensive care at Al-Aziziah health centre in Aleppo. He now weighs 6.2 kg (13.7 lb), and doctors and health workers expect him to make a full recovery.
Youssef is among 1.3 million children UNICEF aims to reach with nutritional care this year across the country. An assessment of nutritional status of displaced children conducted in 2014, the first since the crisis began, rated the level of global acute malnutrition in Aleppo, Hama and Deir ez-Zor governorates as ‘serious’, and the overall nutrition situation ‘poor’.
The effects of nearly five years of conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic – massive displacement, crippled health care system, deteriorated livelihoods, lack of safe water and proper sanitation facilities – have all contributed to the poor nutritional status of children.
Between March 2011 and March 2015, the price of wheat flour increased by 197 per cent, the price of rice by 403 per cent and the price of bread by 180 per cent. Soaring food prices have forced families to reduce the number of daily meals, and to eat lower quality and less nutritious foods.
The situation is even more desperate in remote and inaccessible areas, where 4.8 million people lack regular access to food, health care and other basic services.
Nutrition services are provided through 60 UNICEF-supported centres across the country, many of which have mobile teams to reach women and children in isolated and hard-to-reach locations, who otherwise would be deprived of health care. And 250 trained community volunteers conduct house-to-house visits screening children and referring those who show signs of malnutrition for treatment.
“A mobile team visited us. They saw Alma’s situation and referred us to this centre,” says Salema, comforting her sick daughter in the waiting area of the Syrian Family Planning Association nutrition centre in Damascus. Salema and her family had to flee from their house when violence broke in Al-Qabon, a neighborhood northeast of Damascus.
Nine-month-old Alma was born prematurely and weighed only 1.2 kg at birth. She was never breastfed by her mother. Only two in five mothers in the Syrian Arab Republic practice exclusive breastfeeding.
At the centre, Alma is registered in the outpatient therapeutic feeding programme, where health workers weigh and measure her and educate her mother on the importance of breastfeeding, hygiene and supplementary feeding. Salema is given a week’s supply of ready-to-use therapeutic food, a treatment for malnourished children, which she can use to treat Alma at home.
With six other children to care for, Salema is happy that Alma can be treated at home. All she needs to do is bring Alma to the centre once a week for follow-up and to receive Alma’s weekly food ration. Once at home, she just opens the sachet of nutrient-enriched peanut paste and feeds Alma.
“She is improving well – diarrhea and vomiting have stopped,” Salema says. “I will keep coming until Alma gets well.”
Despite the efforts to tackle malnutrition, the needs outstrip the capacity to respond. Throughout the country, UNICEF is scaling up malnutrition prevention and treatment services, and more health workers, community volunteers and women’s groups are being trained. Fifteen additional nutrition centres will be established in Homs, Hama and Aleppo by the end of 2015, bringing the total to 75.
But to sustain and strengthen this capacity and to ensure the continued delivery of life-saving nutritional supplies, more resources are needed – UNICEF‘s 2015 nutrition programme remains only 10 per cent funded. The international community needs to step in and provide additional funding to make sure that this threat to the lives of hundreds of thousands of children is averted.