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A mission to save lives in Yemen

UNICEF Yemen/2016/Madhok
© UNICEF Yemen/2016/Madhok
A child is weighed at a health facility on the outskirts of Sana'a. UNICEF is supporting health facilities in the city and integrated outreach campaigns in more remote areas.

By Rajat Madhok

Yemen’s crumbling health system has left many children vulnerable to disease and malnutrition. Learn how health workers are using the few remaining health facilities and integrated outreach campaigns to treat the growing number of sick children.

SANA’A, Yemen, 27 October 2016 – “Hurry up, we can’t be late,” says Waleed. “If we don’t get there early, there’s a good chance we will miss out on meeting parents and their children.” He speaks in a hurried voice as we jump into a bulletproof car and speed off towards the outskirts of the city. I scramble around in the front seat, looking for my pen and paper to take notes.

Waleed Noman is the head of operations for the Sana’a office – UNICEF Yemen’s largest field office. We are on our way to a health facility on the periphery of the city where mothers bring their children to have them screened and treated for malnutrition.

“Every day the numbers of mothers and sick children only seems to be increasing, in part because the situation in the country is so dire, and also because we’ve expanded our medical surveillance and outreach programmes across the country,” says Waleed, referring to the conflict that has engulfed the country for the past year and a half. “When mothers know that their children are malnourished, they bring them to these health facilities.”

We drive across the city, passing destroyed buildings and hanging concrete smashed in the conflict. Once a flourishing capital city, Sana’a is now in tatters, damaged physically as well in spirit. Its inhabitants are dragging their feet and barely making ends meet. Long queues at petrol pumps or at grocery stores, closed schools and bombed hospitals all remind its citizens of a better past and a dreaded future ahead.

>> Read more: A day in the life of a community midwife in Yemen

UNICEF Yemen/2016/Madhok
© UNICEF Yemen/2016/Madhok
A child is screened for malnutrition with a mid-upper arm circumference measuring tape. UNICEF estimates that 1.5 million children in the country are acutely malnourished, of which 370,000 suffer from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM).

Thirty minutes later, we enter a health facility where families are sprawled on the floor at the entrance gate. Children, many as young as 3 years old, are running around in circles, playing. A vendor sells hot sandwiches for those waiting their turn to see the doctor.

We walk into the health facility where a sea of mothers with babies in their arms greet us. “They are all waiting to get their children tested for malnutrition,” Waleed says as he points to a child being weighed on a scale.

We follow the next child who is measured for his height and weight. Soon after, a mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) measuring tape is wrapped around his arm. If the tape stops at green, the child is healthy; if it stops at orange, the child is moderately malnourished. Unfortunately, in the case of this one-year-old the tape stops at red, signalling that he is severely and acutely malnourished. None of us are surprised.

UNICEF estimates that 1.5 million children in the country are acutely malnourished, of which 370,000 suffer from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM). Sadly, a collapsing health system, non-functional hospitals or health facilities, and critical shortages of medicines and health workers mean this situation is only likely to get worse. SAM children are ten times more likely to die than healthy children if not treated on time.

In this particular case, the one-year-old is immediately prescribed a dosage of medicines to build his immunity, and given Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF). With this treatment his recovery is fairly secured, but according to Waleed, there are tens of thousands of children in Yemen are not so lucky.

>> Learn more about UNICEF's work on nutrition in emergencies

After he is convinced that the UNICEF-supported health facility is functioning properly, Waleed suggests that we do a spot check on a mobile health team that is vaccinating children in the vicinity. We again jump into the bulletproof car and drive to a nearby village on the edge of the city limits.

The village is comprised of a group of run-down houses. Next to the houses is a large school with an expansive playground. At a tented station outside one of the classrooms, we meet two health workers and their driver. They are part of the integrated outreach campaigns supported by UNICEF, in which health workers use any transport available to reach people who do not have access to hospitals or health facilities. They then provide adults and children with basic yet lifesaving medical services.

This is possibly the largest exercise of this nature in the country – health workers cover all governorates and provide a wide range of services, including screenings, referrals and treatment for children with malnutrition, integrated management of childhood illness (IMCI), vaccinations, reproductive health services for pregnant and new mothers, and more. At this school in the village, the health volunteers have already vaccinated 40 children against polio and other preventable diseases.

It is now time for us to return to our office, and we begin the drive back. Waleed reflects on the day, going over what is being done well and what can be done better. “We have lost out on the gains made in the last decade in improving the health of our children because of this conflict,” he says. “It is so painful to see children die when they could have easily been saved.”

He continues, “As citizens of this world, it is our responsibility to take care of our children, but we seem to keep failing them. Well not under my watch.”

UNICEF’s efforts to reach the most needed children and families in Yemen would not have been possible without the generous contributions from the European Commission (EC) and its Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) to support the provision of healthcare and nutrition services in the most affected and less served locations in the country.

>> Learn more about the humanitarian needs of children in Yemen



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