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Six months after floods struck, malnutrition hits hard in affected areas of Pakistan

By Malcolm Brabant

Six months ago, the worst floods in Pakistan's history struck that country, affecting nearly 20 million people. This is one in a series of stories on the lasting impact of the crisis. 

SINDH PROVINCE, Pakistan, 27 January 2011 – The floodwaters that swept the length of Pakistan six months ago have abated to reveal a new humanitarian crisis: child malnutrition.

VIDEO: 21 January 2011 - UNICEF's Malcolm Brabant reports on the child nutrition crisis in areas of Pakistan affected by massive floods that struck six months ago.  Watch in RealPlayer


Even before the floods struck in late July 2010, a comprehensive survey in the worst-affected region – Sindh Province in southern Pakistan – showed that almost a quarter of children under the age of five suffered from global acute malnutrition. Although malnutrition has always been prevalent in Pakistan, the scale of the problem has widened because of the floods.

'Epic proportions'

“We’re seeing a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions right now,” UNICEF Pakistan Chief of Communication Kristen Elsby said during a visit to relief camps and health facilities in Sindh. “Millions of children are greatly at risk from malnutrition. Babies are dying and mothers are at risk of dying during childbirth.”

© UNICEF video
His grandmother feeds one-year old Ayaz high-nutrition formula in a special treatment centre established for children facing malnutrition in flood-affected areas of Pakistan.

The crisis is the consequence of a combination of factors, including extreme poverty, poor diet, poor health, exposure to disease and inadequate sanitation and hygiene, as well as a lack of education. UNICEF is working closely with the government and partners to ensure that malnourished children are reached and treated.

The European Commission, for example, has contributed €4 million to UNICEF’s nutrition interventions for the flood-affected populations in the provinces of Sindh and Punjab.

“The floods just pushed people over the edge,” said UNICEF Deputy Representative in Pakistan Karen Allen. “It’s truly as bad as I’ve seen in the worst emergencies in the world.”

Nutrition treatment centres

In a UNICEF-supported stabilization centre in Shadatkot, northern Sindh, six-month-old Saleem Babbar lay in the arms of his mother, Husna, 40, as she waited patiently for his condition to be assessed. Saleem fixed his gaze on her face with his brown eyes and moved his mouth in a silent plea for help.

© UNICEF video
A malnourished baby in Pakistan has her upper arm circumference measured to assess her nutritional status.

Saleem was born on the day the floods began. Husna has been unable to breastfeed him, and he is painfully thin and underweight.

“When my child gets sick, as a mother I feel a pain in my chest,” she said. “Sometimes he is up sick all night, sneezing, burning with fever.... It worries me that his breathing is fast and loud. I don’t know why, and I don’t know what to do.”

Saleem has a chance of survival because his mother recognized his condition and took him to one of the growing number of emergency nutrition treatment centres that have sprung up since the Indus River and its tributaries overflowed. He is one of the fortunate ones, because his condition has been diagnosed.

Many other children are in mortal danger, because they have not been diagnosed or treated. Due to poverty and lack of education, especially in rural areas, parents often do not recognize the symptoms of malnutrition. They have come to regard small, stunted children as the norm.



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