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At a glance: Yemen

‘Silent emergency’ of malnutrition threatens young lives in Yemen

© UNICEF Yemen/2007/Pirozzi
A doctor at a therapeutic feeding centre treats a severely malnourished boy.

TAEZ TOWN, Yemen, 11 June 2007 – ‘Taez Boy’ is 18 months old and severely undernourished. In an effort to save his life, his parents travelled a long way to the therapeutic feeding centre here in Taez Town, leaving behind another seven children, all under the age of 15.

Like many others with severely undernourished children, Taez Boy’s family spent thousands of Yemen Riyals on the journey to the feeding centre. At the hospital, the nurses and doctors conducted anthropometric measurement, made a diagnosis and offered medication for the baby, who had hardly eaten in days. He looked miserable, with sunken eyes and a dry mouth.

When Taez Boy did not show signs of improvement, his desperate family – facing a huge hospital expense – took him home. “We decided to take him back to where he belongs and trust God for his salvation,” said the boy’s mother. “Our home, our children and the few animals we have left are at risk. We cannot afford the town life for one more day. It’s too expensive.”

© UNICEF Yemen/2007/Pirozzi
An underweight boy has his anthropometric check-up at a district health centre in Yemen.

Multi-layered nutrition crisis

No one knows what will happen to Taez Boy and many other undernourished Yemeni children like him.

“The current situation in Yemen can be characterized as a silent emergency,” said UNICEF Representative in Yemen Aboudou Karimou Adjibadé, noting that the country’s malnutrition rate is amongst the highest in Africa, at 46 per cent.

“Yemen’s problem is multi-layered,” he continued. “The increasingly prevalent addiction to khat, coupled with the recent locust infestation threatening the crops in the south, are eating away prior efforts on measles, malaria and other child survival measures.

“We need to act now,” asserted Mr. Adjibadé.

Threats to food production

Chewing khat, a flowering plant that contains an amphetamine-like stimulant, plays a dominant role in daily life in Yemen. In 1980, the World Health Organization classified khat as a drug of abuse with possible psychological dependence, but even children here chew it. The plant’s anorexiant effect often leads children to skip their midday meal, another cause of malnutrition.

© UNICEF Yemen/2007/Pirozzi
A doctor explains the nutritional values of various foods to a malnourished boy and his mother at a district health centre in Yemen.

And the vicious cycle does not stop there. Yemen’s thousands of acres of khat plantations need large amounts of water, exacerbating problems with already scarce water resources and hurting the agricultural harvest that feeds the population.

In the end, khat addiction deprives Yemenites of food in every aspect.

Food production faces further harm from swarms of locusts that have recently descended upon southern Yemen. “If the situation is not controlled, the locusts could hurt agricultural crops and threaten the food supply,” said Mr. Adjibadé, who saw the devastating effects of a similar infestation previously when he was UNICEF’s Representative in Niger.

Reaching the most vulnerable

To tackle malnutrition among children, UNICEF Yemen and its partners are now helping the Ministry of Health and Population introduce a community-based therapeutic care programme. Through the promotion of ready-to-use therapeutic foods such as the Plumpy’nut – a vitamin-rich peanut paste – many undernourished children can now be treated at home, with only a weekly visit to the closest district health centre.

Under the new scheme, children who have been admitted as in-patients will be discharged as soon as their condition is stabilized. They will then complete their treatment at home as outpatients. In this way, mothers can provide care to their undernourished children and be with the rest of the family at the same time.

Despite these measures, the causes of malnutrition are still deeply rooted and need urgent attention from the international community.

“The focus now lies in how to ensure resources are used wisely to reach the most vulnerable in Yemen’s society,” said Mr. Adjibadé. He called on the world not to forget Yemen, urging that more attention be paid to issues such as economic reform and government transparency in order to ensure a better life for the country’s children.




11 June 2007:
UNICEF Representative in Yemen Aboudou Karimou Adjibadé talks about the many contributors to child malnutrition in the country.
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