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At a glance: Yemen

Staff profile: UNICEF Yemen Nutrition Officer fights child malnutrition with a passion

© UNICEF Yemen/2011/Halldorsson
UNICEF Nutrition Officer Dr. Rajia Sharhan holds a young child at a therapeutic feeding centre in Sana'a, the Yemeni capital.

By Hedinn Halldorsson

SANA’A, Yemen, 5 August 2011 – “I graduated in Liverpool in 2006 with a Master’s degree in tropical paediatrics, and on graduation day, someone asked me what I thought I could do with such a degree in Yemen,” Dr. Rajia Sharhan says, laughing. “I replied that I was going back to treat the children that I once didn’t know how to treat.”

And Dr. Sharhan did just that. She returned home that same year and promptly joined UNICEF Yemen as the country programme’s Nutrition Officer. Her work to help address child malnutrition in her home country had begun.

Only recently has malnutrition received the attention it deserves in this poverty-stricken and embattled country, partly due to Dr. Sharhan’s efforts. Yemen has one of the world’s highest malnutrition rates, and with the security situation deteriorating and food prices skyrocketing, the future does not bode well for children here.

Diagnosis and treatment

While working as a paediatrician some years ago, Dr. Sharhan witnessed a general inability among Yemeni physicians to diagnose and treat child malnutrition, even though the problem was so widespread.

“A medical doctor trained in the Middle East knows how to treat the most complicated disease but not malnutrition,” she exclaims. She now dedicates a large portion of her time making sure physicians have the knowledge required to treat this life-threatening condition.

© UNICEF Yemen/2011/ Halldorsson
At a therapeutic feeding centre in Sana’a, Yemen, nine-month-old Ikhlas Faisl lies in the arms of UNICEF Nutrition Officer Dr. Rajia Sharhan.

In 2009, during the sixth round of fighting between government and opposition forces in the north of Yemen, Dr. Sharhan helped set up a therapeutic feeding centre in a camp for displaced people. “I trained several doctors on how to treat malnourished children, and we were able to save many,” she recalls.

Seeking help amidst crisis

Today, UNICEF runs therapeutic feeding centres in all 22 of the country’s governorates and outpatient therapeutic contact points in all 334 districts.

At the therapeutic feeding centre at a large hospital in the capital, Sana’a, the mothers and grandmothers of six young patients all tell the same story. They say recent months have been particularly difficult due to Yemen’s political conflict, that they have no source of income or food.

At the feeding centre, treatment is free of charge. Poor families often come a long way to seek help for their young.

Nine-month-old Ikhlas’s grandmother has brought her to the centre because her father had given up on her and left her to die. “For poor families,” says Dr. Sharhan, “letting a child die is, sadly, one of the options they sometimes resort to.”

© UNICEF Yemen/2011/Halldorsson
Sixteen-month-old Manal has been brought from Marib, about 120 km to the east, for therapeutic feeding at a centre in Sana’a, Yemen.

Parents struggle

When this UNICEF staff member speaks, her passion shines through. Her calm demeanour is soothing – a true asset when she deals with distraught parents who often struggle with a range of emotions, including guilt.

As for how she copes in the midst of sometimes immense suffering, Dr. Sharhan admits, “I often feel that I am in a vicious cycle. We treat one child and then watch new ones being brought in.”

But she says that “working with children in the field gives me courage and determination,” adding that one simply develops “tolerance” while treating some of the hundreds of thousands of children in Yemen who are severely or moderately malnourished.

“Moderate malnourishment can become severe very quickly,” she notes before rushing off to continue her rounds. Dr. Sharhan’s patients must not be kept waiting.



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