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Mobile health and nutrition teams aid drought-affected families in Ethiopia

UNICEF Image: UNICEF image: Horn of Africa Drought
© UNICEF/HQ06-0245/Heavens
Four-month-old Ahmed Mohammed Abdi lies on a blanket at a UNICEF-supported feeding centre in Ethiopia’s Somali region.

By Andrew Heavens

GODE, Ethiopia, 18 May 2006 – Mohamed Abdi’s livestock started dying in February, when drought began to grip the land around his home in Amale, here in Ethiopia’s remote Somali region.

Three months later, as his family income and food intake deteriorated, his wife Sainaba Dahir fell ill. Soon her breast milk dried up. It wasn’t long before the couple’s only son, Ahmed Mohammed, just four months old, started showing the all-too-familiar signs of emaciation and severe malnutrition.

It is a chain of suffering that spread across Ethiopia’s Somali and Oromia regions, and further afield across the whole Horn of Africa, in the first four months of this year.

Earlier this week, UNICEF launched a multimedia report Child Alert: Crisis in the Horn of Africa, calling the world’s attention to an estimated 40,000 children still facing severe malnutrition across Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. The report came with a funding appeal for $80 million.

A long journey for help

Mr. Abdi and his wife packed up their few possessions in late April and walked for four days to reach the nearest hospital, in Gode, more than 80 km to the west.

There they found the only therapeutic feeding centre in the zone, funded by UNICEF at Gode Hospital – an institution that services 500,000 people within Gode zone and another 500,000 people outside, all with just 50 beds.

Ahmed was assessed and quickly put on a course of life-saving servings of therapeutic milk, fed to him regularly by his mother.

Two days into the course, he was still painfully thin and listless. But the medical staff at Gode Hospital were hopeful. “Things look very encouraging,” said Sheik Abdilahi Ali Haji, head of the district health bureau. “When children manage to get here, we have a success rate of 97 per cent.”

UNICEF Image: UNICEF image: Horn of Africa Drought
© UNICEF/HQ06-0246/Heavens
Mobile health worker Farah Mohamed Lefe delivers medication at a centre in the village of Eloweni.

Drought felt long after the rain

Rain started to fall again in the Somali region during the first week of May. But it arrived too late to help Ahmed’s family. “We have rain now but all my animals are already dead,” said his father. “It is up to Allah now.”

This story is typical of many traditional herders caught up in the drought, said UNICEF’s Representative in Ethiopia, Bjorn Ljungqvist.

“To pastoralist people, their livestock is everything,” he added. “When rains fail, there is no grass for the cattle to eat. The cattle suffer and their milk production falls. That is when the people start to suffer because the milk is one of their primary sources of food.”

Access to health and nutrition

The fully-stocked therapeutic feeding centre in Gode Hospital is just one part of UNICEF’s health and nutrition plan of action across the Somali region.

Because the predominantly pastoralist population is constantly on the move, UNICEF has worked with the regional health authorities to set up 16 mobile health teams to keep up with more than 1.3 million mobile people.

“These nomadic people are very far away from towns, so it is important for the mobile health team to come to them,” said Mohamed Bihi Ahmed, leader of one of the mobile health teams based in Denan, the heart of the region’s last major drought in 2000.

The teams of three UNICEF-trained health workers travel to some of the most remote corners of the Somali region in four-wheel-drive vehicles equipped with emergency health kits and food.

In the small village of Eloweni, more than three hours’ drive north of Gode, patients are queuing up outside a mud-walled building used as a temporary surgery by Mr. Bihi Ahmed’s team. Elderly people, who have never had access to a regular health service before, are lined up with the young.

“People come here every Sunday when the health team comes,” said Sheik Abdi Hakim Hassan, a village elder and judge. “All the people use it. The children who were very malnourished when the health centre arrived have now become well.”




UNICEF correspondent Dan Thomas reports from Ethiopia on efforts to save malnourished children. Filmed by Efrata Belachew and edited by Rachel Warden.
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UNICEF correspondent Dan Thomas reports from Ethiopia's Somali region on UNICEF's work to help save thousands of malnourished children and their parents. Produced by Blue Chevigny.
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