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UNICEF programme expanded to fight widespread undernutrition in Somalia

© UNICEF Somalia/2009/Morooka
A staff member at the UNICEF-supported outpatient therapeutic clinic in Hargeisa, northwest Somalia, checks the records of severely undernourished children treated at the facility.

By Iman Morooka

HARGEISA, Somalia, 8 December 2009 - In Somalia, more than 40 per cent of children exhibit signs of chronic nutritional deprivation. This can be a life-threatening condition if appropriate interventions are not provided.

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At the clinic in Hargeisa – one of 200 UNICEF supported Outpatient Therapeutic Facilities in Somalia – severely undernourished children receive life-saving treatment in the form of Plumpy'nut, a special therapeutic food. The children’s progress is monitored weekly until their health stabilizes.

Since December of last year, UNICEF and partners have also been distributing a new ready-to-use food, Plumpy’doz, to vulnerable children aged 6 to 36 months. To date, more than 130,000 young children in Somalia have benefited from this product, which is rich with minerals, high quality proteins and fats.

UNICEF also supports 30 in-patient stabilization centres where children with the most severe cases of undernutrition receive round-the-clock medical care.

“I sometimes don’t have work and can’t provide for my children, so they get malnourished,” said Derer Muse, whose daughter is receiving treatment in the stabilization centre. “I have another child who was malnourished too, but was treated in this clinic and will be discharged soon.”

Humanitarian interventions expanded

Almost half of the total population in Somalia is in need of humanitarian assistance, with hundreds of thousands of children acutely undernourished.

Despite challenging conditions – with ongoing conflict, food insecurity, poor living conditions, and lack of safe water - UNICEF’s nutrition programme greatly expanded over the past few years. More than 70 new outpatient therapeutic facilities for the treatment of severe acute malnutrition were opened here in 2009 alone.

Such efforts are critical to increasing nutrition levels in Somalia – particularly in the conflict-affected areas where access to basic services is limited. Recent surveys have shown reductions in undernutrition in the areas where humanitarian interventions are bringing integrated nutrition, health, water and sanitation services, as well as food rations.

“We saw a significant reduction in malnutrition levels among displaced communities in Bossaso, northeast Somalia, where global acute malnutrition rates dropped from 28 per cent to 20 per cent,” said UNICEF Somalia Nutrition Specialist Fitsum Assefa. “These are encouraging results, but much more needs to be done to meet the needs of vulnerable children in Somalia.”

Promoting exclusive breastfeeding

Another factor contributing to high undernutrition rates in Somalia is that less than 10 per cent of infants here are exclusively breastfed during the first six months of their lives. Increasing this life-saving practice is a key challenge for UNICEF and its partners.

© UNICEF Somalia/2009/Morooka
Six-month-old Mahada is weighed at the outpatient therapeutic clinic supported by UNICEF in Hargeisa, northwest Somalia.

To address this challenge, UNICEF is working with community-based partners such as the non-governmental organization Taban Tabo, whose volunteers work in displaced communities, talking to pregnant women and new mothers about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding.

Fahima Mohamed, a mother of four, lives in one of the settlements for the displaced in Hargeisa. She has been receiving information and counselling on exclusive breastfeeding through Taban Tabo’s volunteers.

“I gave my first three children water and other drinks even when they were very young, because I thought breast milk wasn’t enough, and they used to get fever and diarrhoea all the time,” she said. “But now I know that I should only give breast milk, and my fourth child is much healthier than my older children.”




UNICEF correspondent Denise Shepherd-Johnson reports on ongoing efforts to reduce malnutrition in Somalia.
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