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Sri Lanka

Nutrition survey checks on health of children affected by conflict in Sri Lanka

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2006/Mead
Kisharthan, 3, is measured for the nutrition survey that is being conducted in areas of Sri Lanka affected by conflict.

By Francis Mead

MULLAITIVU, Sri Lanka, 1 November 2006 – Three-year-old Kisharthan doesn’t quite know why he’s lying on his back on a wooden board. His father’s hand is on his head and a nurse is holding his feet. He looks alarmed and seems about to cry, but before he can start he is whisked up onto his feet again. A midwife notes down a figure on her form, and the next child is brought along to the measuring board.

In the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu in northern Sri Lanka’s Vanni Region, some 67,000 people have left their homes in recent months – many of them fleeing from shelling and bombing as fighting broke out between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the area.

Now UNICEF is helping the Ministry of Health carry out a nutrition survey among displaced families, after reports that parents were having trouble getting enough food. Data from last year show that about a third of the districts’ children under the age of five were already underweight before the current crisis.

One of the first assessments

Agricultural production in the Vanni Region continues despite the tensions, but some supplies are running low, and a lack of fuel means that rice-milling plants are having difficulty functioning.

United Nations global Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland has raised concern about limited access to conflict areas in Sri Lanka. He described the UNICEF-supported nutrition survey and a food security analysis by the World Food Programme as the first needs assessments carried out in Vanni since the resumption of hostilities in early August.

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2006/Mead
Amutharajan Mariyalaisa brings her year-old daughter Ashomitha for assessment as part of the nutrition survey.

The survey is focusing on pregnant women, lactating mothers and children under five.

Kisharthan is one of the first children in line at the health centre at Mamoolai, not far from the country’s east coast in Mullaitivu District. His father, Logeswayan Vallipuram, left the devastated city of Jaffna a month ago.

“I wanted to look after my son in a place where I didn’t have to worry about shelling and fighting,” he says. “I used to be a driver, but now I’m working as a labourer. If the situation at home becomes normal, I’ll go back.”

Displacement and undernutrition

Milk powder prices have risen sharply, a problem that several mothers mention. Konsi Nadeskumar, who has arrived at the centre with her one-year-old son Nathiyaran, has been in Vanni for three months.

“Our home is close to the front lines. Now we’re staying with relatives,” she says.  “It’s hard for us to get food because we don’t have any income. We lost our boat and fishing equipment, and my husband doesn’t have a job. It’s really difficult to get milk powder and noodles.”

“Undernutrition is chronic in this area,” adds the Mullaitivu Deputy Provincial Director of Health Services, Dr. TW Jeyakularajah. “If people have to stay away from their homes any length of time, there will be nutritional implications. The sooner they can go home, the better.”

In Kilinochchi District, government health workers are also using the survey to hand out corn-soya blend and pre-cooked flour supplied by the World Food Programme to supplement parents’ diets.

Checking over the process, clipboard in hand, is UNICEF’s Priya Ramanan, one of the team who helped organize the survey. “The aim is to get a clear picture of the needs of the displaced people,” she says. “They answer questions on access to food and health facilities, as well as access to clean water and toilets, and questions about their feeding habits and so on. From this we can find out the underlying causes of any undernutrition.”



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