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At a glance: Yemen

Treating malnutrition among displaced children in Yemen

© UNICEF Yemen/2009/Brekke
One in five children in the Al-Mazrak camp for people displaced by conflict in northern Yemen is acutely malnourished, according to a UNICEF nutrition screening in the camp. Here a child opens a packet of Plumpy’nut therapeutic food.

By Truls Brekke

AL-MAZRAK, Yemen, 6 October 2009 – Ghonia Jaber cries and wriggles in the doctor’s lap as he takes her measurements to determine whether the 14-month-old is malnourished.

She is just one of the children UNICEF has screened for malnutrition in the Al-Mazrak camp for people displaced by conflict in northern Yemen. The camp is located some 40 km from the town of Harad in the deserts of western Yemen.

Living conditions here are tough. All 12 members of Ghonia's family live under one tent. But it’s better than the situation back in their remote mountain village in Sa’ada province, where fighting is still raging. When the conflict reached their village, Ghonia's family walked for four days before they reached the camp, exhausted from the effort.

Fighting in the north of the country, pitting government troops against Houthi rebel forces, has forced 150,000 people to flee. The crisis is taking an especially heavy toll on children. Since the conflict intensified in August, cases of severe malnutrition have increased threefold.

Children under five at risk

The results of the nutrition screening in Al-Mazrak are stark. One in five children under five years of age suffers from acute malnutrition, with about half of the cases considered severe.

In Ghonia's family alone, seven out of the nine children are acutely malnourished, and five of the cases are severe.

© UNICEF Yemen/2009/Brekke
UNICEF Yemen’s Dr. Kamel Ben Abdallah screens a family of nine children by their measuring upper arm circumference. Ghonia, 14 months old, and four of her siblings are found to be severely malnourished.

“The situation is very serious. If not treated, these children are at a high risk of death,” says UNICEF Yemen’s Chief of Young Child Survival and Development, Dr. Kamel Ben Abdallah. He adds that malnutrition accounts for 60 percent of deaths among the under-five population. Malaria is also a threat as the rainy season begins, and malnourished children are at increased risk of disease.

Therapeutic food

As families arrive at the camp, malnourished children receive special treatment. Severely affected children get Plumpy’nut, a ready-to-use therapeutic food that provides the calories, nourishment, vitamins and protein they need in order to recuperate.

As of late September, UNICEF-trained health workers had distributed 24,000 packets of Plumpy’nut in Al-Mazrak – enough to provide for 160 children for two months. “But the number of children in the camp is rising, so we need to bring in more supplies,” says Dr. Kamel.

Since the children are in a very weak state, they are especially vulnerable to infectious diseases and illnesses such as measles, malaria and diarrhoea. UNICEF, therefore, is also focusing on safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene – as well as nutrition – to prevent any disease outbreaks among the 5,000 people in the camp.

To improve the situation, UNICEF is setting up more facilities for children in Al-Mazrak, even as it continues nutrition screening by community volunteers who have been recruited from the displaced population. Meanwhile, the camp’s out-patient therapeutic programme is also focusing on children’s long-term nutrition needs, with an emphasis on breastfeeding, appropriate complimentary feeding and dietary requirements.



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