Somalia: Months after famine conditions have ended, health centres across southern Somalia help children suffering from malnutrition

November 13, 2012

Source:  UN Children's Fund Country:  Somalia

By Mike Pflanz

MOGADISHU, Somalia, 13 November 2012 – Ten-month-old Ifrah Mohamed Abdi was born as the first famine declared in more than 20 years in Africa held its grip on the village in which her family has lived for generations.

UNICEF correspondent Susannah Price reports on efforts to reach malnourished children in Somalia.

Her mother, Fatuma Hassan, desperately hungry herself, struggled to feed her. What little food there was in the markets was too expensive, and Ifrah become sicker and sicker.

Today, she is a smiling, healthy baby whose first months plagued with diarrhoea and chest infections are “only like a bad memory,” Ms. Hassan says.

Famine ends, but Somalis remain at risk

In 2011, famine was declared in several regions of Somalia after three years of poor or failed rains and ongoing civil insecurity. Famine conditions ended in February 2012.

But more than two million Somalis are still considered to be at ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’ levels. Currently, 236,000 children are acutely malnourished, of whom 70 percent are in the South.

Ms. Hassan fled her village in Somalia’s southern Lower Shabelle region in May of this year, bringing Ifrah, her brother and sister to a camp for internally displaced persons in Mogadishu.

Health centres support malnourished children

At the camp in Mogadishu, health staff working with displaced families immediately referred Ifrah to Wadajir Health Centre, where UNICEF supports Somali organization SAACID in treating malnourished children.

Ifrah is one of 90,000 severely malnourished children under 5 years old who have, in the past six months, been helped in more than 1,200 centres funded by UNICEF across southern Somalia.

“If this health centre was not here, I don’t know where else I could have taken Ifrah,” says Ms. Hassan, as SAACID staff carry out routine health checks at Wadajir.

“The help that they gave her, I am sure, saved her life. Without it, we had nothing; there was no money, and I do not know where I could have bought food for her.”

Outpatient care follows children’s nutritional status

As part of UNICEF’s Outpatient Therapeutic Programmes, children are closely monitored by qualified staff on a weekly basis.

They are weighed, their temperatures are taken and the circumference of their upper arms is measured – a simple and effective indicator of a child’s nutritional status.

A week’s supply of a peanut-based paste with a high nutritional value is given to the mothers of malnourished children who are more than six months old. The paste both helps return them to health and, coupled with medicine, beats back the effects of malnutrition. This specially formulated therapeutic food has made a huge difference to tens of thousands of children already suffering from severe acute malnutrition, like Ifrah.

Integrated approach includes health, water and sanitation

Elsewhere in the tin-roofed, brick-walled health centre at Wadajir, nurses give children antibiotics and deworming medicines, and immunizations are administered for tuberculosis and measles.

Nearby, mothers sit in circles on the floor for short lessons about keeping their homes clean and breastfeeding infants exclusively for their first six months – key ways to avoid the onset of underlying causes of malnutrition including diarrhoea.

“Managing children for malnutrition is not just about giving food; we take an integrated approach,” says Field Supervisor for SAACID at Wadajir Health Centre Adan Hassan Mohameed.

The continuation of this integrated approach, bringing together nutrition, health, water and sanitation, is crucial, according to Nutritional Officer for UNICEF Somalia in Mogadishu Nur Ali Mohamud.

“The situation is improved compared to last year, but, in Somalia, we must not forget that we have been in such a chaotic situation, thanks to civil war for so long,” he says. “It is not enough to give help during the worst times, like the famine, and then to stop helping when that improves. The baseline that we are dealing with is still a very, very poor situation. There are still more children every day who need help.”