BAGHDAD / GENEVA / NEW YORK, 21 November, 2002 - Child malnutrition rates in the south and center of Iraq have fallen to the lowest level since they peaked in 1996, according to a new survey released today by UNICEF.
The survey reveals that the rate of acute malnutrition among children has dropped from a high of eleven per cent in 1996 to four per cent this year.
The number of children who are underweight also fell, from a 1996 high of 23 per cent to 9 per cent this year. Malnutrition indicators are considered the most sensitive gauge of the health of children.
The new data on child health comes from a UNICEF-supported household survey of malnutrition among children under five that was conducted in the south and center of Iraq by the Iraqi Ministry of Health and the Central Statistical Organization in February 2002.
UNICEF attributes the improvements to:
"Despite improvements there are still close to one million children under the age of five suffering from chronic malnutrition in Iraq today - that's nearly a quarter of all children of that age," said Mr. Carel de Rooy, the head of UNICEF in Iraq. "This is unacceptable. More still needs to be done to end the suffering of a generation of children."
UNICEF said that the monthly government food ration received by virtually the entire Iraqi population has made the greatest impact in reducing child malnutrition. Under a programme agreed to between the Iraqi government and the United Nations in 1996, known as the Oil for Food Programme (OFFP), the Iraqi government was permitted to sell a limited amount of oil within the framework of UN sanctions in order to purchase food, medicine, and essential supplies.
In 2000 the cap on Iraqi oil sales was removed, making significant sums of additional revenue available for the humanitarian programme and the rehabilitation of vital sectors, such as water, sanitation and electricity.
The OFFP budget is allocated by the Government of Iraq, which spends more than $1.25 billion on food every six months. The food ration distribution is among the largest of its kind in the world.
Whereas in 1991 the food ration per person in Iraq amounted to just 1,090 calories each day, increased revenue from the OFFP had raised the daily ration to 2,215 calories per day in 2002. The drop in child malnutrition means that an estimated 480,000 fewer Iraqi children are suffering from general malnutrition today than in 1996.
Mr. de Rooy added that an "early-warning" network of nearly 3,000 UNICEF-supported government Community Child Care Units contributed to the remarkable improvement in the nutritional status of Iraqi children. Almost 13,000 volunteers monitor the growth and weight of children at these community centers. The centers screen around a million children a year, and malnourished children are referred to health or nutritional rehabilitation centers for supplementary treatment.
UNICEF said that an additional factor that led to the sharp decline in child malnutrition in Iraq was the breaking of a three-year long severe drought in 2000, followed by two years of good rainfall. Agricultural output doubled while the price of local food products fell.
"Malnutrition rates are very sensitive to changes in the availability of food at the household level, so the recent gains could be lost," said de Rooy. "If there was an exacerbation of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, this could seriously affect the distribution of food, leaving children at risk of severe malnutrition once again."
Acute malnutrition, whose symptoms include muscular wasting and edema, is considered by nutritionists to be the most important indicator that children are at risk of death.
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