In Yemen, conflict and poverty exacerbate child malnutrition

Conflict has caused the country’s health system to crumble, leaving children vulnerable to food insecurity and disease

By Rajat Madhok and Eman Al Sharafi
Dr Meritxell Relano, Representative UNICEF Yemen visits baby Abdulmalik at the Al Sabayeen hospital in Sana’a.
UNICEF Yemen/2017
30 January 2017

UNICEF is supporting the Al Sabayeen hospital in Yemen’s capital city to treat children suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

SANA'A, Yemen, 30 January 2017 – Abdulmalik lies in a hospital bed, twisting and turning. He hasn’t slept well, he hasn’t eaten well. In fact, ever since he was born five months ago, little Abdulmalik has known nothing but discomfort and pain.

When his family brought him to the hospital three months back, Abdulmalik weighed just over 2 kilograms. Today, at 3.2 kilograms, he is improving, but is still a long way from his ideal weight of 6 kilograms.

Abdulmalik is being treated at the Al Sabayeen, a hospital for children supported by UNICEF that is located in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city. His aunt brought him here when he stopped responding to visual or auditory stimuli. The doctors suspect that besides severe acute malnutrition (SAM), he may have also developed other complications.

A crisis of malnutrition

The story of Abdulmalik is common across the country. Already the poorest nation in the Middle East, Yemen has witnessed the collapse of its health system because of the ongoing conflict. Almost half of Yemen’s population is food insecure and many have fled their homes to areas with no functioning health facilities.

Nearly 2.2 million Yemeni children are acutely malnourished, and an estimated 462,000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition – almost a three-fold rise over 2014 levels. If not treated on time, these children are 11 times more at risk of dying than healthy children. Even if they survive, they risk not fulfilling their developmental potentials, posing a serious threat to an entire generation in Yemen, and keeping the country mired in the vicious cycle of poverty and underdevelopment.

“I have travelled across the country and everywhere I go, I see children, who could otherwise be hale and hearty, suffer from acute malnutrition,” says Dr. Meritxell Relano, UNICEF’s Representative in Yemen while on a visit to Al Sabayeen hospital. “We continue to work on a war footing, screening children for malnutrition and treating those who are severely malnourished. But the magnitude of the problem is overwhelming. We need more medicines, doctors and functional health facilities, but most urgently, we need the war to stop so that lives of children such as Abdulmalik can be saved.”

UNICEF Yemen/2017

Abdo is held by his mother at Al Sabayeen hospital. Abdo was diagnosed with malnutrition and dehydration, but his family could not afford transportation fees to and from the hospital and were forced to stop his treatment.

UNICEF and its partners have, over the last few years, invested heavily in programmes to address malnutrition by delivering a package of nutrition-specific and sensitive interventions. The Community Management for Acute Malnutrition (CMAM) project identified ten priority governorates which are categorized as ‘Emergency-like situations’, directing most of its resources to these areas. The programme has scaled up dramatically since the conflict escalated almost two years ago. In 2016, UNICEF supported the treatment of 215,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition across Yemen. Its lifesaving support included medicines and medical equipment, nutritional supplies, and assistance for injured children.

Cycle of poverty

Back in the hospital room at the Al Sabayeen hospital, doctors are hopeful that Abdulmalik may recover if he remains under observation and undergoes full treatment. But staying at the hospital is often a challenge for families who travel from far away governorates, and cannot afford to leave their homes or daily jobs for long.

This is a problem that two-year-old Abdo and his parents are facing. About a month ago, Abdo’s body became swollen, and he was weakened to the point that he could not raise his head. His parents brought him to the Al Sabayeen hospital, where doctors determined that he was suffering from malnutrition and dehydration. After he was admitted, he gradually improved, reaching 50 per cent recovery. But Abdo’s family is living in poverty. When the conflict reached their home in the Haradh district, nearly everything they owned was destroyed and they were forced to flee. Despite the fact that they now live in Sana’a, they cannot afford transportation fees to and from the hospital and decided to take Abdo back home.

Doctors at Al Sabayeen see this story often: parents will remove their child from the hospital before she or he has made a full recovery, only to return again when the child relapses. It is a vicious cycle of increased humanitarian needs exacerbated by the conflict, a shortage of medical facilities and ever increasing poverty.


In Yemen today, 1.7 million children are acutely malnourished and require urgent care. This includes at least 462,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, who could die if they do not receive the assistance they need.

In 2016, UNICEF supported the treatment of 215,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition across Yemen and provided more than 4 million children under the age of five with vitamin supplements to boost their immunity. UNICEF also supported the vaccination of over 4.8 million children against polio.

In 2017, UNICEF needs $236.6 million for its emergency response in Yemen including $83.5 Million which is needed to provide nutrition services to mothers and children. Learn more: UNICEF's Humanitarian Action for Children 2017 >