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In Mauritania, UNICEF and partners provide integrated assistance to Malian refugees

© UNICEF Mauritania/2012
In February 2012, 2-year-old Malian refugee Habibi was diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition. By May, after a little over two months of treatment in Mauritania, he had completely recovered.

By Ines Lezama

M’BERA, Mauritania, 12 June 2012 – In February, 2-year-old Habibi was diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition, a life-threatening condition.

He was treated by Dr. Ahmed Ould Aida, of UNICEF Mauritania, in a temporary refugee camp at Fassala, where he and his family were staying after having fled conflict in northern Mali.

After more than two months of treatment with therapeutic foods, including fortified peanut paste, Habibi has completely recovered – a change so dramatic it is difficult to believe that he is the same child.

A network of care

Today, Habibi’s grandmother, Nanni Ouel ed Faghi, is relieved to see him healthy and happy, and grateful for the care he has received.

Many people and organizations played a role in Habibi’s recovery. He was treated at the main health centre in M’Bera, which is directed by the local government’s medical chief. Most of the staff members providing nutrition services are volunteers from within the refugee community. UNICEF doctors provide treatment and UNICEF supplies therapeutic food and training for the health staff.

The reasons children become malnourished are not always straightforward. Malnutrition is often caused by a combination of factors, including insufficient food, a diet with little diversity, and unhygienic conditions that increase the incidence of diarrhoea and infections. These factors are exacerbated in crises like the one Habibi’s family encountered.

A refugee’s trial

Habibi’s family fled an attack on their village in Mali, driving through the cold night until they reached Mauritania. During the journey, Habibi began coughing. He soon developed a respiratory infection and began experiencing severe diarrhoea, the beginning of a vicious cycle of illnesses that contribute to malnutrition. As his malnutrition worsened, his immune system weakened, leaving him even more vulnerable to illness.

And recovery for malnourished refugee children is often all the more difficult. Refugee families are under enormous stress, facing difficult living conditions and uncertainty about their futures. They don’t know when they will be able to go home or what will be waiting for them when they return. They may be separated from other family members, too, not knowing where they are or whether they are alive. Both parents and children often need psycho-social support. As a result of these stresses, refugee parents sometimes won’t bring their malnourished children to clinics or will drop out of treatment programmes.

These complicating factors make Habibi’s full recovery an even greater achievement.

Integrated relief efforts

UNICEF and its partners are providing integrated assistance to the Malian refugees now living in Mauritania.

Volunteers from the health centre go out into the community every day looking for children who might be malnourished, talking to their families and encouraging them to seek and continue treatment for their children.

Ten school tents have been opened (with four more under construction), providing education for approximately 3,000 primary school-aged children. These schools also offer a sense of normality, routine and safety to the children.

In addition, water, sanitation and hygiene programmes are improving families’ access to safe water and latrines, helping to reduce the incidence of disease.

But with more than 65,000 refugees from Mali now living in Mauritania, UNICEF needs to scale up its operations to ensure that children like Habibi get the help that they urgently need.



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