Response teams rush to treat rising malnutrition
By Ricardo Pires
Dangerous levels of malnutrition threaten a quarter million children in South Sudan, and unless they are reached with treatment, up to 50,000 children under age 5 could die.
PAGAK, South Sudan, 23 April 2014 – Nine-month-old Jock Chabang, one of the youngest citizens in the world’s newest country, has already experienced a great deal of hardship in his lifetime.
After conflict broke out in South Sudan last December, Jock’s father joined the fighting and left the boy with his mother in Pagak, a small village in Upper Nile State, near the border with Ethiopia. By the time a UNICEF rapid response team arrived in the area, Jock had become badly malnourished and was suffering from severe dehydration. His life was hanging by a thread.
Jock’s 20-year-old mother, Nyatuach Chabang, became distraught. “I am scared that my son will die and his father won’t be even here to bury him. He left three months ago and hasn’t come back,” she says. “I don’t even know if he is alive or not. What if I lose both of them? I will be alone and have nobody else in life. I would prefer to die too.”
After Jock’s father left, his young son started refusing to breastfeed. Ms. Nyatuach believes her own stress has been preventing him from eating, even though she has also tried to give him cow’s milk and porridge.
“He doesn’t take anything. He has been sick for two months, but now it has got a lot worse. I heard a plane had come with help, so I decided to walk to the clinic and bring my son,” Ms. Nyatuach says. When they arrived at the local health clinic, Jock was examined by a UNICEF nutritionist and given oral rehydration salts and therapeutic feeding. With this treatment, he will live.
Given its location, Pagak has seen a large influx of South Sudanese displaced from other parts of the country, and food insecurity is threatening the area. The township has one permanent health clinic, which is managed by three nurses and a clinical officer – four staff for a population of nearly 10,000 people.
Children in South Sudan already faced emergency levels of malnutrition in the nearly three years since the country gained independence in 2011. Conflict has now pushed them to the edge, with a quarter million likely to suffer from dangerous levels of malnutrition. Unless they are reached with treatment, up to 50,000 children under age 5 could die.
UNICEF is deploying rapid response teams to the most remote areas, such as Pagak, to reach as many children as possible, with the aim of treating at least 150,000 severely malnourished children under 5. The teams bring desperately needed services, supporting breastfeeding mothers and pregnant women, and deliver ready-to-use therapeutic foods, micronutrient supplements, medicines, water purification sachets, vitamin A and deworming tablets.
Holding her son in her arms, Ms. Nyatuach is relieved he is finally getting medical attention. “I’m a lot happier now that I can see my son is being helped,” she says. “I think he will live. This is a new beginning for him.”