In Yemen, fighting to survive in a country plagued by malnutrition

19-year old Mohmammed struggles to get his little brother the treatment he needs

By Rajat Madhok with inputs from Moohialdin Fuad
Five-year-old Mohanned
14 February 2017

A version of this story originally appeared in the Associated Press.

HAJJAH, Yemen, 14 February 2017 – For 19-year-old Mohammed, the first rays of light falling in the small hospital room only bring more bad news. His two-year-old cousin Yehia has succumbed to the curse that has consumed his country: severe and acute malnutrition. But he cannot mourn, he has to be strong for himself and for his younger brother, Mohanned, who lies beside him, curled up in bed and breathing noisily as the air pushes through his lungs.

Five-year-old Mohanned is suffering. His severely malnourished body aches with each breath. His ribs push through the skin and his eyes try to focus on his elder brother. He winces every few seconds with pain.

Mohammed holds his younger brother’s frail hands as helplessness seeps in. “I have already lost a cousin to malnutrition today, I can’t lose my little brother,” he says softly, looking away from his brother’s emaciated body.

Mohanned is undergoing treatment at the Abs hospital in Hajjah, a governorate in Yemen which has some of the highest numbers of severely and acutely malnourished children. With little food, the family can barely make ends meet. Their 35-year-old mother Juhairiyah is ill, but no one knows what’s wrong with her. She has never been to a hospital. Their father works as a farmer in another district and can afford to come home only once a month.

It takes one hour for Mohammed to reach the hospital from their village. His brother sits uncomfortably in his lap. The drive is as bumpy as it is unsafe, but there is no choice. Mohanned’s health has been deteriorating for over two years, but only now has the family been able to afford the cost of bringing him for treatment. Mohammed hopes it’s not too late. His younger brother’s recovery has been slow.

Across Yemen 1.7 million children suffer from acute malnutrition. Of them, 462,000 suffer from severe acute malnutrition (SAM), similar to Mohanned. Global estimates suggest that a child suffering from SAM is 11 times more at risk of death if not treated on time than a healthy child of the same age. In other words, Mohanned is 11 times more likely to succumb to this preventable illness than his healthy peers.

Matters have been made worse by the unceasing and unforgiving conflict. Health facilities have been forced to close their doors because of the fighting and thousands like Mohanned have nowhere to go to seek treatment. It’s been nearly two years now, and less than half of the health facilities are functional.

Yemen’s children are suffering the most. Hundreds of children under five die every week from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, malnutrition and respiratory tract infections. Children who could easily be saved are now fighting to stay alive.

Back in the hospital in Abs, Mohammed gently caresses his younger brother. Life has not been fair to them, but what is more disconcerting for Mohammed is the bleak future that lies ahead. With a grievously sick brother, an ill mother and a father who cannot return home for days on end, he knows he has a lot resting on his young shoulders.


In 2016, UNICEF has supported the treatment of more than 237,000 children suffering from SAM across Yemen and provided more than 4 million children under the age of five with vitamin supplements to boost their immunity. But this lifesaving work remains hindered by the shortage of funding and limited access to areas caught in the fighting.

Funding continues to be a challenge. In 2017, UNICEF needs US$83.5 million to provide much needed nutrition services to mothers and children across the country. Learn more: UNICEF's Humanitarian Action for Children 2017 >