Fighting famine in Aweil, South Sudan, as acute malnutrition rates continue to rise

Skyrocketing food prices and a reduction in food imports mean most staples are too expensive for an average family

By Ilya Gridneff
A young mother cradles her malnourished child

22 June 2017

AWEIL, South Sudan, 22 June 2017 – More than a hundred South Sudanese women, dressed in colourful flowing dresses, sit with their children and new born babies. Some have walked days through the burning heat to get to the only health clinic in Aweil North County, Northern Bar el Ghazal State that borders Sudan.

Abuk Wol, a 29-year-old mother of seven, has spent the last week in the nutrition stabilization centre looking after her two-year-old severely malnourished boy, Madouk Deng.

“He’s been admitted here six times,” she said as the tiny boy wriggled in discomfort. “It’s been diarrhoea, vomiting and sickness since he was seven months old.”

The primary health care facility in Aweil is full of stories like Madouk Deng’s. Despite the spread of famine being reversed in South Sudan, almost 276,000 children are severely malnourished and in need of immediate life-saving aid.

“Many young lives are literally hanging by a thread,” says Vandana Agarwal, UNICEF’s Chief of Nutrition. “These already weakened children are even more vulnerable to the threat of waterborne and other diseases, such as measles.”

UNICEF South Sudan/2017/Gridneff

Abuk Wol, 29, sits in the UNICEF-supported nutrition stabilization centre at the Aweil North primary health care facility with her two-year-old severely malnourished boy, Madouk Deng. He has already been admitted here six times.

South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, has been gripped by internal conflict since the outbreak of fighting in December 2013. The famine, declared in two counties in February, was a new but related factor contributing to an exodus of more than 1.83 million people fleeing across borders and nearly 2 million on the move inside the country. More than 1,000 children are now fleeing South Sudan every day.

The conflict’s indirect impact – like skyrocketing food prices, inflation hitting over 800 per cent in October 2016, a depreciating currency and a reduction in food imports – mean most staples are too expensive for an average family.

David Mutethia, from Première Urgence Internationale, a French NGO supported by UNICEF, that runs the primary health care centre in Aweil North, said the situation was worsening. They are already stretched, managing 400 patients a day, four times the capacity of a normal centre.

“In the past couple of years we’ve seen in the region floods destroying crops, then not enough rain, there was also a bug that caused crop failure,” he said.

At the nutrition centre, health staff treat the children with critical life-saving therapeutic milk and Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic Food (RUTF), a highly nutritious sweet peanut paste, which is designed to treat severe acute malnutrition, as well as with powdered milk and oil.

Tiny Maduok Deng is slowly responding to treatment but the tell-tale signs of malnutrition, stick thin arms, visible ribs and distended stomach are still there.

“He does not want to be held. He just lies there,” Abuk Wol said. “I have carried him, he is my child, he is sick. I want him better.”

A young boy sits on a device used to measure height
A young boy sits on a device used to measure height as part of a malnutrition screening at a UNICEF-supported Outpatient Therapeutic Program in Aweil, South Sudan.

Other mothers at the centre have similar stories of hardship and living with barely enough to survive. In a neighboring bed, Atak Deng, 80 years old, sits with her malnourished nine-month old grandson Wol Piol Wol. His mother is at home caring for her other eight children, she said.

“When I was young I did not face these challenges,” she said. “I don’t know how it can change, maybe God will help.”

Outside the ward, mothers waited patiently for their children to be screened, weighed and checked for signs of acute malnutrition. Just being at the centre provides some hope. Detection and early treatment can make the difference between life and death, while sustained humanitarian assistance has helped to reverse the spread of famine earlier in the year.

Since January this year, UNICEF and partners have treated more than 56,000 children aged 6 to 59 months for severe acute malnutrition in South Sudan, and aim to treat more than 200,000 severely malnourished children by the end of the year.